Marilynne Robinson is the author of many essays. She's taught at the Iowa Writer's Workshop for over 25 years. But in her years of writing, she has only published four novels - Housekeeping in 1980, Gilead in 2004, Home in 2008, and Lila in 2014. Housekeeping was one of those novels that booksellers were still abuzz about when I started working as a bookseller in 1986, and I wound up reading it in the years that I worked on the floor when I had the freedom to read whatever I wanted, and because I had only limited television access, I would often read 15 books a month. Oh, those days!
Each of her recent works have won a major award. Gilead received the Pulitzer, Home the Orange (now Baileys Women's) Prize, and Lila the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her most recent book is a collection of essays, The Givenness of Things. And now, as we discuss the book further, please note that I am not a critic but a bookseller, and I might have gotten a detail or two wrong from the book. I'm hoping note, but I feel this is an apologies in advance situation.
Until you've come to Lila, you might see the protagonist as a concept rather than a person, the wife of Reverend John Ames, who told his story in Gilead. She takes care of the garden. She has John Ames's son. But inside of Lila was a story waiting to be told. As a young child, Lila is taken by Doll from one crappy life to one that might not be quite so crappy, even though her new career is migrant worker. Doll is a bit of an odd surrogate mother, and she's not likely going to heaven (to be argued out later) but she does get Lila into school for a year, so she can learn reading and stuff, and that's where Lila takes the last name Dahl, sort of by accident but perhaps by fate.
The story drifts (not jumps, distinctly not jumps) between present and past as Lila confronts her unexpected courtship by Reverend Ames after she comes into his church to avoid a storm, with her childhood, a stint in a St. Louis whorehouse, and other memories There are no chapter breaks, which further clouds the break between past and present. This stream of consciousness writing is slightly complicated in that it's not written in first person the way you'd expect, but close third person.
For this meeting, the in-store lit group had several first-time attendees, which is not unusual when we read a higher-profile book, especially one that begs for discussion. One thing I will note from our experiences is that a lot of folks had trouble with the first 70 or so pages, after which, they enjoyed it more. So my first piece of advice is that you should know this is not uncommon. It was my thought that even thought he book is set in the Midwest, where we are located, it is nonetheless foreign in tone, with a distinct dialect that takes some getting used to. Some of us took to it more than others, but several echoed Juli when she said that it made for a more challenging reading experience.
But goodness, the comment that was most echoed was the lack of chapters. So many of us apparently need a distinct break for our reading. I was always grateful to find an extra space between paragraphs, as I've tackled a number of books over the years that haven't even had that. But there's no question that the lack of breaks was done for similar effect to the blurring between present and past.
And as Carol, one of the attendees said at the talk, said: "We don't live in chapters."
I had mentioned that we'd earlier read Paul Harding's Tinkers in the book club, another author (and a student of Robinson's) who jumped from present to past and back in almost a dreamlike manner. One thing that really helped us navigate this was listening to Harding speak about his work on his visits. Alas, I don't think a visit from Robinson is in the cards for us.
Margo had heard Robinson talk years ago at a conference and noted that the author generally wrote from beginning to end without editing. It takes a certain kind of genius to be able to accomplish that - most writers who eschew editors generally wind up going back to them. In this interview with Jonathan Lee for the National Book Foundation, she notes that she writes relatively quickly, and that the breaks between books are not spent writing fiction - she's waiting for the next book to divulge itself.
One theme that we discussed was whether you have to be religious to be a good person? Lila, like the other books in the cycle, is deeply concerned with faith, but her perspective is far different from Reverend Ames and his friend Reverend Boughton. She wonders whether Doll will go to heaven, and for that matter, which woman will Reverend Ames wind up with in the afterlife, the first wife who died young, or Lila, or will it be both?
Faith is a very strong component of all her stories. It's a bit unusual for literary fiction. Wyatt Mason discusses this a bit in his interview with Robinson in The New York Times last year: "If Robinson’s nonfiction has been remarkable in its ability to make the polemical seem reasonable, her fiction has been remarkable for how it embodies her intellectual fascinations without turning her novels into pedagogical platforms. All four of the novels are in conversation with — at times tacitly, at times explicitly — the stories of the Bible."
Joyce saw the story as one of early deprivation causing lasting damage. Robinson really captured what its like to be lonely. Jeff, who had read the other books in the cycle, seconded her comment about loneliness, and felt that many of the characters were struggling with mental illness.
Gail saw the love story as one akin to Kent Haruf's Our Souls at Night, which is currently one of Boswell's big sellers, and another book, like Lila, much beloved by Boswellian Anne. In that book, an older couple who've both been widowed find solace in each other. I mentioned that many have seen the love story as a strong component of the novel, with that being the focus of Megan O'Grady's interview in Vogue magazine, for example, but it's interesting that our readers were much more focused on Lila's past life and struggles, rather than her present. In the end, we thought the story was Lila coming to terms with whether to stay in Gilead with John or leave.
One critic noted that Housekeeping started as an exercise in writing metaphors that Robinson couldn't stop writing. As many folks know, it was 24 years between that first novel and Gilead, which was published in 2004. Robinson has continued her interest in metaphors, but the one that stood out in our minds most was the knife that Lila held onto. Shouldn't this have had negative connotations, being it was Doll's, connected to violence? But it was also noted that she was happy to have anything of Doll's, a person whom she much loved, and David noted that it probably represented strength to her.
Several reviewers noted that Lila was actually the bridge to Housekeeping, which was not part of the Gilead cycle. But whereas before reading the book, I thought the worlds connected, in fact they meant that Lila is spiritual cousin to Sylvie from that earlier novel. One puzzle solved!
I wondered if anyone in the group had a strong background in Faulkner, as several critics have compared the work of the two writers, and in fact, Robinson teaches Faulkner. Of course they are working in two different settings, but each writes of a very distinctive place and both are very concerned with the inner workings of the mind. Alas, we did not get a Faulkner scholar this go around, and my having read As I Lay Dying in high school was not much help.
I should note that in addition to much of the group having problems with the first 70 or so pages, David felt the book fell apart in the last third. He felt it should have ended when Lila decided to stay. I can't say that anyone agreed with him, but I thought it was an interesting take so I included it.
One thing to think about when deciding to read Robinson's most recent novel is whether you need to read the other books in the cycle beforehand. Each takes place in the same town and much like Old FILTH and The Man in the Wooden Hat, Gilead and Lila take the perspective of husband and then wife. As an aside, you can get that all in one book through Fates and Furies, or as a two-in-one with Carol Shields’s classic Happenstance.
Most reviewers don’t weigh in on this dilemma, though it did appear that they had read Gilead and Home, and several had a lot to say about Housekeeping as well. Noah Cruickshank in the late AV Club took a stand: “Ostensibly, one should be able to read Lila without ever encountering Gilead, since the events of the former lead up to the latter. But it’s not clear that Lila, as good as it is, would stand quite as tall without its predecessor.”
While no reviewer would admit to not reading the previous books, and thus could not argue for jumping in with Lila, John Wilson in the Chicago Tribune takes the closest position I could find to that: "My message is simple. Even if you haven't found the two previous books to your taste, give Lila a try. Perhaps you'll be won over, as I was, by the very first sentence." I don't think I need to repeat the sentence to make the point. Just take my word that it's a fine, no, award-winning-worthy sentence."
So in fact let this book club be the true test of whether the book is a series or a set of companion novels, as only about four of the 15 attendees had previously read Marilynne Robinson, and I perhaps was the a true enigma, having read Housekeeping and Gilead, but skipped Home. And the John Wilsons of the world descended upon me and said how can this be? I would have liked Home the best. But there you have it - I'm not going backwards, not for this and not while my to-be-read pile is multiple stories (both meanings). But our group concurred that the book stands on its own just fine. Reading the previous books definitely adds nuance to the story, and it would be great if some of the attendees read more Robinson, much like having several attendees who read additional Ferrante added to our discussion of My Brilliant Friend...but I'd never consider reading the Naples cycle out of order...and yet I think there are people starting with The Story of a Lost Child because it's a bestseller and on the five best works of fiction list for The New York Times Book Review.
Interesting aside #1: Sarah Churchwell in The Guardian sees the influence of Harriet Arnow's The Dollmaker, a classic novel from the 1950s. I haven't seen anyone else make the connection, but I think she makes a compelling case.
Interesting aside #2: Housekeeping just came out in a cute little hardcover edition from Picador.
Upcoming meetings, all starting at 7 pm:
Monday, January 4: Unbecoming, by Rebecca Scherm. This is a novel with thriller aspects, and the kind of reversals that folks are enjoying of late, from Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins. Scherm has her MFA from Michigan and will be appearing at Boswell the following Friday, January 8.
Monday, February 1: Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, by Svetlana Alexievich. We're going to continue reading prizewinners for a few months. With regrets that we didn't tackle Patrick Modiano (we still might), we're reading the Nobel Literarture prizewinner from this year. Plus attendee Joyce has taught Chernobyl for many years, which could add a dimension to the conversation.
Monday, March 7 (due to leap year): Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson. This novel won the Dayton Peace Prize for nonfiction and has won many accolades, including Desmond Tutu calling Stevenson: "America's Nelson Mandela."