Shiny Book Club – Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Introduced by Harriet

lilaIt’s time for the third round of The Shiny Book Club – we’re posting the questions now, and the discussion will start in our Extra Shiny issue in about eight weeks’ time. The book we’ve chosen for you this time is, we think and hope, one that will lead to a lively discussion by dividing opinion. In fact it’s already done that, as Simon and Harriet loved it, and Victoria and Annabel don’t like Marilynne Robinson (so far! Maybe we can change their minds?). Yes, it’s Robinson’s latest novel, Lila, reviewed by Simon in Shiny Issue 3. You can read that review here.

Briefly, the novel is set mainly in Gilead, a small town in Iowa, in the early 1950s. Readers of the earlier novels (Gilead and Home) will know of Lila, as she’s the wife of John Ames, the elderly minister who, until he met her, had been living alone for decades following the death of his wife and newborn baby. Lila is only sketched in in the earlier books, though there are hints that she is still, after some years of marriage, a bit of a mystery to her husband, who, however, loves her deeply. Now we are going to be privy to that mystery. The whole story of her previous life is now revealed slowly, mostly through her memories – although this is told in the third person, it is entirely from Lila’s point of view. And an extraordinary life it proves to be – a wandering outcast for much of it, and later a degrading period in a house of ill repute. The main plot of the novel, aside from these flashbacks, concerns the growing relationship between John and Lila. Decades apart in age, having nothing apparently in common, they are drawn together by an incredibly strong bond.

Here are some questions to think about as you read:

1. What do you think draws John and Lila together?
2. ‘John and Lila have their differences, but they learn much from each other’. Is this true? What do they each learn?
3.The novel is set in the 1950s. How important is this, and how well does it evoke that time period?
4. Do you think of John and Lila as essentially good people? Do they have flaws?
5. Lila was long-listed for the Man Booker prize but failed to make the shortlist. Any ideas why this might have been?

We will reconvene here on December 3rd when our Christmas Extra Shiny is published. The discussion will take place in the comments below. If you’ve reviewed the novel yourself, do put in a link to your review!

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Now out in paperback, BUY Lila by Marilynne Robinson from the Book Depository.

7 Comments

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  2. Victoria

    I’m halfway through at the moment and enjoying it more than Gilead, I’m happy to say. What perplexes and intrigues me is this persistent atmosphere of mystery that Robinson weaves around her characters. They keep thinking/saying ‘it must mean something’ in the narrative’s indirect discourse, which absorbs the narrating ghost of Robinson herself into its origins. Is this disingenuous? It seems to me a prime way that she gets her Christian message across, but as narrator, she could instead simply decide what things mean and show us or tell us. I keep wondering about the use of these two people to tell this particular story. Could it still be a Christian story with more knowing, more intellectual, more self-aware characters?

  3. I read Lila early in the year and found it mesmerising. Here’s a review I wrote then: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1162099676 the gist of which is that Robinson, it seems to me, employs an atmosphere of mystery, just as you say Victoria, because she wants to write about the kind of love that accepts not knowing and that enables the kind of courage which allows a human being not to nail things down but to continue to wonder why things happen and why they don’t, to allow doubt, and to talk about joys and disappointments and fears, and to demonstrate these feelings, even if, as in the Reverend’s case, you subscribe to a religion that – some would say – should provide all the answers. It should have been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, in my opinion.

  4. Amazing, I stumbled across this — and I’m in the middle of reading Lila! I have just emerged from Gilead, and really wanted to read Lila, having read Home a while ago. The mysteriousness of the human experience seems to me the main purpose of Marilynne’s Robinson’s writing: the awe and wonder that transforms even pain into a viable part of experience. For her it’s an act of faith, for the secular reader there is still a transmission of love and sense of openness to all that life has to offer, however apparently destitute of meaning. She loves to recuperate and restore the destitute and the fallen. I think this is at the heart of what makes her such a pure literary writer — for me the religious connotation is present but not necessary for the trilogy to achieve its aim.

  5. Sorry, I tried, but I’ve failed with Marilynne Robinson again – I don’t think I have the patience to read her style of writing.

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  7. Trisha

    I have enjoyed Robinson’s other novels very much but this one was a disappointment. There were many unanswered questions about why the gentle and elderly Pastor Ames was married to such a strange and elusive woman so many years his junior. Here’s a link to my Goodreads review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1226529584

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