I always told my customers not to feel like a lump if they were slogging through a book that everyone else just loved. "There's a reason more than one book is published every year!" I'd exclaim. I meant it then, and I still do. "Sometimes," I'd go on, "it's not about the book itself; it's about what is going on in your life while you're reading it. Put it down before you decide you hate it, and go back to it later."
As often as I gave that advice, I rarely took it myself. Surrounded by new books from which to choose virtually every day, I never made good on my best intentions to go back to any book I'd put down, even the ones I sensed were worth the effort.
One of the best books I've ever read in my whole life, one that filled every cranny of my reading desires, was Marilynne Robinson's magnificent Gilead. It was the first in what would become the John Ames trilogy. For reasons that escape me now, I never picked up the second book, Home, but when the third volume, Lila, showed up I was downright gleeful. I had wanted to know more about her, John Ames' young and unusual second wife, since reading Gilead.
I grabbed up the ARC that had been sent to the store, cleared my decks, and then..... just stalled out. I could not get beyond the first 25 pages or so. I kept it next to me for months, and would pick it up again, every time I'd finish another book. And every time, I'd be stuck again. It finally, regretfully, wound up in my giveaway pile.
But I ran across the accursed copy again as I was cataloging my home library, and decided I would give it one more go. It is not an easy read; there are no chapter divisions, and very few natural breaks in the narrative. Sitting with Lila is a commitment.
Lila, stolen as a child by a woman named Doll, is raised in the midst of a pack of drifters, where right and wrong exist on a different spectrum than they do for most of us. It's a culture in which salvation comes at the tip of an oft-used knife as often as it does on the banks of a baptismal river. When Lila is ultimately left to her own devices she makes her way to the small town of Gilead, where she happens in on the Pentecost service led by widower Preacher John Ames.There is nothing subtle about Lily; she speaks her mind and owns her heart. But there is nothing subtle about the gentle and soft-spoken love of John Ames, either. That these two set their faces towards an uncertain future together is an act of will and courage on both their parts.
The most brilliant passages, though, deal with the questions that Lila has about the very nature of God. When presented with the notion of judgment and condemnation to Hell after death, even for those who have not had an opportunity to repent, Lila is struck by the thought that her beloved Doll will burn forever,
Souls just out of their graves having to answer for lives most of them never understood in the first place. Such hard lives. And there Doll would be, whatever guilt or shame she had hidden from all her life laid out for her,
no bit of it forgotten. Or forgiven.
Here is Ames' response to her worries.
Thinking that other people might go to hell just feels evil to me, like a very grave sin. It's still a problem to think about people in general as if they might go to hell. You can't see the world the way you ought to if you let yourself do that. Any judgment of the kind is a great presumption.
And presumption is a very grave sin.
What I loved most about the character of John Ames in Gilead holds true in Lila as well. He is a good man, one given to continued and thoughtful reflection about the exercise of faith about which he might have once been squarely decided. It's what mature faith requires of us all, I think.
Just like Gilead, this book is not for every reader. Those who require a plot driven novel won't be able to find purchase here. Lila tells her story her way, full of looping back and standing in place, and every thought she has inspires a memory to which we become privy. It is bedeviling, and beautiful.
I'm sorry it took me so long to get back to Lila, but I'm so very glad I did.
Published in hardcover by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 2014
Published in trade paper by Picador, October 2015