Violet wells's Reviews > Lila

Lila by Marilynne Robinson
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really liked it
bookshelves: 21st-century

Rather like Gilead, I found this an uneven book. The first seventy or so pages are absolutely ravishing – beautiful writing, a compelling story and a real sense the author has embarked on a lucid visionary quest. However, then the story lost most of its drive and the theme became a little monosyllabic. Lila, the feral orphan child searching for identity and a sense of belonging, acquires her grace a little too easily, not surprising as throughout she’s surrounded by idealised characters. There’s no evil in Robinson’s landscape, not even of the petty variety which can so try one’s patience and faith. In this sense it’s more of a fable than a novel with archetypes replacing believable human beings. At times I couldn’t help wishing Toni Morrison had written this novel. No one, after all, is better than her at giving the inarticulate an eloquent poetic voice. In Robinson’s hands the embittering experiences of Lila’s youth remain largely cosmetic. The struggle to overcome them no more difficult really than weeding a neglected garden. It’s a heartwarming vision. No doubt about that. And maybe, if you bumped into someone as wholeheartedly benevolent and generous as Lila’s husband such a happy ending might be possible. Gilead, for me, was charged with dramatic tension by the appearance of wanton malevolence into the narrative; Lila, on the other hand, has only her own demons to oppose and they are eliminated with the predictability of ogres falling in fairy stories. The message perhaps take too much precedence over dramatic tension. It is a lovely hopeful message though.
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Quotes Violet Liked

Marilynne Robinson
“She could see it surprised him, too, sometimes. He told her once when there was a storm a bird had flown into the house. He’d never seen one like it. The wind must have carried it in from some far-off place. He opened all the doors and windows, but it was so desperate to escape that for a while it couldn’t find a way out. “It left a blessing in the house,” he said. “The wildness of it. Bringing the wind inside.”
Marilynne Robinson, Lila

Marilynne Robinson
“You’re right not to talk. It’s a sort of higher honesty, I think. Once you start talking, there’s no telling what you’ll say.”
Marilynne Robinson, Lila

Marilynne Robinson
“Any good thing is less good the more any human being lays claim to it.”
Marilynne Robinson, Lila

Marilynne Robinson
“That strong, grassy smell, raw milk in a tin cup.”
Marilynne Robinson, Lila

Marilynne Robinson
“The night was windy, full of tree sounds. The moon was gone and there was rain, so fine that it was only a tingle on the skin.”
Marilynne Robinson, Lila


Reading Progress

December 7, 2015 – Started Reading
December 7, 2015 – Shelved
December 15, 2015 – Finished Reading
March 7, 2016 – Shelved as: 21st-century

Comments Showing 1-20 of 20 (20 new)

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message 1: by Seemita (new) - added it

Seemita Very neat review, Violet. Thanks for tempering my expectations a bit; I have heard some great things about this author (and this series).


message 2: by Violet (last edited Dec 15, 2015 04:05AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Violet wells If there's a happy ending I always find I'm compelled to go excavating for the lie, Seemita! Also, this is a very Christian and American vision of life and I suspect as an agnostic European I'm rather more cynical. Not, of course, that this makes my outlook in any way superior. It's just not a vision I found it easy to share. It's like when you see someone being kind to a refugee on TV - it's uplifting to watch but you kind of know the bigger truth isn't quite so beguiling. America has a tradition of celebrating the individual's struggle with adversity - the American film industry is almost founded on this principle - but often in celebrating that individual it has to ignore the majority of individuals facing a similar plight with rather less success. So, there's this underlying sensation that we're being fed a beautiful lie.


message 3: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala You're always so clear about what works and doesn't work for you, Violet, which makes your reviews great guides for future readers. I imagine you've expressed the thoughts of very many readers here both with regard to Gilead as well as to Lila - that unevenness you mention, and I think I understand what you mean by it, will definitely be off-putting for some.
And yet, and yet, I want to pull threads out of your beautifully smooth assessment ;-)
(view spoiler)


Violet wells Fabulous assessment, Fionnuala. I especially like this - "Lila remained a 'heathen' in spite of baptism and writing out passages of the bible. I loved that Robinson let her remain in her pure and natural state." I haven't read Home (I thought this was part 2) but agree with what you said about Ames' motives being suspicious (there seemed a lot of egotism in his account of his life until Broughton's son came along. But isolating him within the framework of this book he never puts a single foot wrong and I felt there should have been at least one serious conflict with Lila before they settled down together. Also, I did at times feel I was reading a novel in the school of Toni Morrison so to speak. I too saw Doll as an African American. I saw Lila that way too sometimes because of the obvious Morrison influences. Fascinating what you say about Iowa's links with the abolitionist movement.I missed that. But maybe Robinson deliberately kept Doll's ethnicity vague to ward off Morrison comparisons.


Elyse Walters Violet: always... 'Thank You'.
and?? what's this rumor I hear about some new feature on GR's????
That you posted about your reading experience this year? Do you offer directions too? lol

I thought of a book I think you might like. It's called "The Distant Land of My Father" by Bo Caldwell.
A Bay Area author


Violet wells Elyse wrote: "Violet: always... 'Thank You'.
and?? what's this rumor I hear about some new feature on GR's????
That you posted about your reading experience this year? Do you offer directions too? lol

I though..."


A new feature, eh? Do you mean the five perfumes I'm launching to accompany my reviews? I've already settled on Rosemary for my one star reviews because I HATE rosemary. And they say it augurs marriage!


Elyse Walters Well... Not to get personal or anything ..lol
But what about HATE sex. Do you like that? Kidding. In the book I finished yesterday - I discovered that YOUR generation apparently
seems to enjoy it very much. lol

The older I get - the younger you seem! So yes...I'll take a bottle of your hate-perfume! Do I get a discount if I purchase two bottles. I'll save them
to spray on those special low reviews I may dish out.

I hope they don't go - run out of scent...cuz as soon as I write a 1 star review...an entire bottle of that stinky Rosemary is going with it!


Violet wells Sometimes I have the sneaking suspicion that my generation are all mouth and no trousers!


Elyse Walters Oh, That's such a funny and pathetic line - all at the same time!


message 10: by Violet (last edited Dec 15, 2015 07:31AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Violet wells Elyse wrote: "Oh, That's such a funny and pathetic line - all at the same time!"

I know! I'm not sure I'm very representative of my generation. While they're all going to dinner parties I'm often happier at home reading a book.
I hope you're going to do your year in review.


message 11: by Fionnuala (new) - added it

Fionnuala Violet wrote: "Fabulous assessment, Fionnuala. I especially like this - "Lila remained a 'heathen' in spite of baptism and writing out passages of the bible. I loved that Robinson let her remain in her pure and natural state."..."

And she's a spiritual heathen too, isn't she, more spiritual than Ames.

But maybe Robinson deliberately kept Doll's ethnicity vague to ward off Morrison comparisons.

I thought she deliberately kept it vague too - but maybe she just didn't want to give it importance as if she's saying it doesn't matter, that Doll is first and foremost a woman with a soft heart and a hard skin and that is what mostly defines her.

But isolating him within the framework of this book he never puts a single foot wrong and I felt there should have been at least one serious conflict with Lila before they settled down together.

He is very noble in this incarnation, it is true. But then this book isn't about him, it's about Lila, and all the struggles are Lila's. I meant to say earlier that I think Robinson retains a certain tension until the end (view spoiler)

Wouldn't Robinson be chuffed to know we'd found so many things to tease out in her book..
By the way, Home was written earlier so I suppose you could call it Gilead #2. The events of Home take place at the same time as Gilead. Lila, though written later, is a kind of prequel to both.


message 12: by Violet (last edited Dec 15, 2015 07:55AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Violet wells Fionnuala wrote: "Violet wrote: "Fabulous assessment, Fionnuala. I especially like this - "Lila remained a 'heathen' in spite of baptism and writing out passages of the bible. I loved that Robinson let her remain in..."

Yep, I think the nicest touch of all in the novel was how well Robinson showed Lila, the heathen, "baptising" Ames. I guess essentially there are two ways to read this book - one in isolation where maybe the tension is better sustained, and the other in the context of Gilead where, to some extent, you'd have to say Ames goes into a slight moral decline. Also Lila was too shadowy in Gilead. Don't you wonder if maybe it might have been a masterpiece had she written it as one book? I'm not a great fan of slicing up what is essentially one story into three separate books and hope it doesn't become a trend. There might be a case for saying this is a bit of a cop out. You also wonder if this is how she originally conceived the idea or if it came about while writing Gilead. I can easily see how she might have discovered Jack warranted a novel of his own while writing him into Gilead. On the other hand the fact she kept Lila so shadowy leads one to believe she always intended writing Lila's story in another book.


message 13: by Fionnuala (last edited Dec 20, 2015 11:44PM) (new) - added it

Fionnuala Violet wrote: "...Also Lila was too shadowy in Gilead. Don't you wonder if maybe it might have been a masterpiece had she written it as one book? I'm not a great fan of slicing up what is essentially one story into three separate books and hope it doesn't become a trend. There might be a case for saying this is a bit of a cop out. You also wonder if this is how she originally conceived the idea or if it came about while writing Gilead. I can easily see how she might have discovered Jack warranted a novel of his own while writing him into Gilead. On the other hand the fact she kept Lila so shadowy leads one to believe she always intended writing Lila's story in another book. ..."

It's hard to know if she had it all planned out ahead of time - re Jack's and Lila's separate stories in any case. In a Paris Review interview she said she just sat down one day in a hotel where she had some time on her hands and started writing Gilead so it doesn't sound like there was a whole lot of attention to planning and deliberately keeping Lila as a shadowy figure. But when we read Lila, we are struck by just how careful Robinson must have been, in spite of any lack of sketching out a trilogy, not to develop Lila's story in the earlier book. Of course, Ames was the narrator in Gilead and he didn't necessarily know all the details of Lila's former life, or even half of them, which we finally get in Lila (and he also might not talk about that part of her life to her son - his narrative is letters to his son, after all).
I actually like the circling of characters in different books which Robinson does here. I find it problematic when a writer tries to cram too many characters' disparate stories into one narrative. I noticed that problem recently in Anne Tyler's Spool of Blue Thread. Far too many large but partially told stories squeezed into one small frame...
Anyway, I really enjoyed discussing this with you, Violet - sometimes I find the comment threads on reviews help me to thrash out what I feel about a book better than mulling it over by myself ;-)


Violet wells That's interesting that she just began writing Gilead without a plan. My theory is, she began to see the potential for another book when she became super interested in Jack. From there I reckon she also decided to tell Lila's story and probably removed most of Lila's biography from Gilead as an inspired afterthought. Of course a problem with this is that it removed some of the dramatic tension from Lila's story. If we've read Gilead we know she won't leave. I know what you mean about the cramming characters into one narrative syndrome. Purity too was a bit like that. I've really enjoyed this discussion too, Fionnuala. And though I was perhaps a little harsh in my review, I did love the first 100 or so pages of Lila as much as i've enjoyed any novel this year.


message 15: by Steve (new)

Steve I like your distinction between novel and fable. Humans truly are more plausible than archetypes incapable of anything bad. Still, I know I should give this author a try. The four stars you give this one speaks to at least some appreciation.


Violet wells Steve wrote: "I like your distinction between novel and fable. Humans truly are more plausible than archetypes incapable of anything bad. Still, I know I should give this author a try. The four stars you give th..."
Thanks Steve. She writes beautiful prose, no question about that, and so is definitely worth reading. Have to confess I'd recommend Elena Ferrante over her though.


message 17: by Steve (last edited Dec 17, 2015 01:39PM) (new)

Steve Funny you mentioned Elena Ferrante. My head has been deep in the heart of Napoli for the past week. I'm only part of the way through book 2, but I can tell it's a phenomenal series. So far there's nothing remotely resembling a fable. :-)


message 18: by Rosalind (new)

Rosalind Minett Yes, always disappointing when things work out much more easily than real life.


Elyse Walters Sure fun reading these reviews after having finish the series

Hugs my friend xo


Violet wells Elyse wrote: "Sure fun reading these reviews after having finish the series

Hugs my friend xo"


It was strange reading this review again because I thought I liked this book better than my review suggests. It explains though why I never got round to Home. There was never any question of not reading the third Ferrante after finishing the second. XX


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