Happy ‘Lila’ day, Marilynne Robinson fans—the new novel is released today!

If you haven’t already ordered your copy, we strongly encourage you buy it from an independent bookstore in your local community. If you don’t have a local, independent bookstore, we can recommend some favorites from which you can order:

Our advice on the new novel? Don’t hurry through it—let every wonderful word soak in.

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Review roundup of ‘Lila’ by Marilynne Robinson, round two

We have more reviews of Lila ahead of its release tomorrow! If you haven’t already ordered your copy, we strongly encourage you buy it from your local, independent bookstore and support your community.

First up is our favorite review title yet:

Here are the additional reviews we’ve come across:

Lila is also a Staff Pick by the esteemed Powell’s, with a brief review by “Dianah.”

You can also read our first roundup of reviews if you missed it. If you’ve found a good one we’ve missed, please get in touch.

Review roundup of ‘Lila’ by Marilynne Robinson, round one

Marilynne Robinson’s new book ‘Lila’ debuts Tuesday! As expected, reviews of the new book are beginning to appear. Here’s the first batch for your Sunday reading pleasure:

And of course, our own review: “The quantum mechanics of the lower midwest: A review of Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Lila,’” reviewed by Adam Fleming Petty.

We’ll have more reviews in a second batch tomorrow.

Lila will inspire the usual round of profiles and interviews (take five drinks every time someone uses the phrase “unlikely Calvinist!”), but this, by Wyatt Mason, is unusually deep. If I were to rank all the Robinson profiles I’ve ever read, this would at least be a contender for the top spot. 

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The quantum mechanics of the lower midwest: A review of Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Lila’

Reviewed by Adam Fleming Petty

One of the biggest titles rolling out of the publishing industry this season is The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. It is big in every way: more than 600 pages that detail an epic battle between two factions of immortals, along with tales of the Iraq War, the feverish infighting of literary Britain, and a young girl’s coming-of-age.

And that’s not even the whole story. In a profile for New York magazine by Kathryn Schulz, Mitchell reveals that he has designs to write an ‘über-book,’ with every novel that he has already written and will write in the future all taking place in the same universe, enfolding characters reincarnated across millennia, godlike figures from an ancient past, and the next stage of human evolution, 250 million years in the future. It makes the Pixar Theory look like a rerun of The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Marilynne Robinson is the last author you’d expect to deploy such fantastical tropes. History as it’s actually unfolded holds more interest for her than any counterfactuality. Her thoughts on immortality are essentially religious, and thus essentially mysterious. But I couldn’t help but think of Mitchell while reading Lila, her new novel, the concluding volume for what has become the Iowa Trilogy. Robinson has made a small Midwestern town in the mid-20th century as multifaceted, as full of potentiality, as any parallel universe.

The arc of Robinson’s career is well known. Her out-of-nowhere first novel, Housekeeping, was published in 1980, and might well have disappeared if Anatole Broyard hadn’t given it a rave review in The New York Times. She was one of the most promising novelists of that decade; she was also seemingly uninterested in fulfilling that promise. She spent the next twenty years writing essays and polemics, resulting in two books of nonfiction, Mother Country and The Death of Adam. Most wrote off the possibility of seeing another novel from her. When Gilead appeared, in 2004, it was doubly miraculous: first, that it actually existed; second, that it was this good.

At the time, I was a student at Calvin College (as in John Calvin), located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. My friends and I drank cheap beer while discussing theology, politics, literature, and Tom Waits. For us, Gilead wasn’t just a great novel—it was our great novel. Here were the concerns of our daily lives, arguing about God under the vast Midwestern sky, transubstantiated into great art.

I’d imagine that many readers shared our devotion even if their circumstances and backgrounds were different. And I’d also imagine that many readers shared our reservations when, four years later, Robinson published a sequel, Home. Gilead was a novel that seemed nearly holy; the thought of a sequel seemed disrespectful, if not blasphemous—as if Robinson were a televangelist asking her followers to display their faith by picking up the phone, credit card at the ready.

Robinson had larger aims, of course, and one of them was interrogating the devotion that Gilead inspired. Most paeans to the book mention John Ames baptizing kittens as a child. What often gets left out is the knotty history of race that the novel dramatizes, culminating in the figure of Jack Boughton, prodigal son of Gilead, having a relationship with a black woman in St. Louis and fathering a biracial child. In his thoughts and actions on this matter, John Ames is less than a saint, evincing the attitudes that wouldn’t be unusual for an elderly man in the 1950s to possess. Some readers glossed over this aspect of Ames, wanting to go straight for the holy without first going through the human. Sometimes I think that Robinson wrote Home, detailing the story of Jack and his family, to remind her many readers of this fact.

Home seemed to explore the world of Gilead as thoroughly as possible, following much of the story and chronology of the first book from a different perspective, as if testing out Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in novel form. When I first heard that Robinson was going to make a trilogy out of the story of two old pastors, I wondered if there was anything left.

Lila depicts the life of John Ames’ wife, the woman who appeared in his church one Sunday morning like a miracle come to life. She plays an important role in the minster’s life, to be sure, but in the previous books, she’s more of a presence than a character. I couldn’t even remember what her name was, to be honest.

This minor character is now front and center, a move that brings to mind Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the story of Hamlet as told from the perspective of two walk-on characters. In that play, Hamlet’s two friends found themselves the protagonists of a parallel story, with little to no memory of who they were before they appeared in the tale of the Sad Dane. Similarly, Lila deals with the gaps, absences and lacunae of the titular character.

We learn that Lila, as a very young child, was kidnapped by a drifter, a woman named Doll. “Kidnapped” may be accurate in word more than spirit: Doll believes that she rescued Lila from a neglectful family, and Lila comes to see Doll as her only family. The two of them make their way across the back roads of the country during the Depression, although there are almost none of the usual signifiers of that era. Lila and Doll live a life of poverty that is spiritual more than historical. When Lila is a young woman, Doll gets involved in a fight, killing a man. She is arrested and put in jail, at which point Lila starts to wander the Middle West on her own.

It’s a setup straight out of Housekeeping. Indeed, part of the pleasure of Lila is watching the more heterodox sensibility of Housekeeping commune, and even clash, with the piousness of John Ames’ Iowa.

When Lila appears in Ames’ church, she doesn’t feel miraculous. She has, in fact, escaped from a brothel. She moves into an abandoned shack on the outskirts of Gilead, and begins a thoroughly tentative courtship with the minister, who, at first, simply wants to make sure she’s alright. Soon they are married, and, seeing as this is before television, they spend their evenings at the dining room table, discussing theology.

Ames finds himself returning to the topic of the elect and the unelect, the baptized and the unbaptized, with the only answer he feels qualified to give being that such matters are fully comprehensible only to God, and humans should respect such mystery. Lila, however, can’t help but wonder if Doll and the people she met in her former life wouldn’t be counted among the unelect. It is not incorrect to say that Lila is a domestic drama about predestination.

The resolution of this drama comes at the end of the book, in a scene I won’t spoil. Technically, I suppose, it’s already been spoiled, as it recounts a scene from Gilead, told from Lila’s perspective. But the tone is so different that it might as well be new, demonstrating in miniature the accomplishment of the Iowa Trilogy as a whole: that those closest to us are often the most mysterious—and the most holy.


Adam Fleming Petty’s work has appeared in The Millions, The Cultural Society, and The Christian Courier. He lives with his wife and daughter in Indianapolis, and is at work on a novel. Find him on Twitter at @flamingpetty.

Marilynne Robinson’s forthcoming novel Lila has been longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award for fiction. From the National Book Award press release:

Publishers submitted a total of 417 books for the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction. Five distinguished Judges were given the charge of selecting what they deem to be the best books of the year. Their decisions are made independently of the National Book Foundation staff and Board of Directors; deliberations are strictly confidential.

To be eligible for a 2014 National Book Award, a book must have been written by a US citizen and published in the United States between December 1, 2013 and November 30, 2014. 

This is the third time Robinson has been a contender for the National Book Award. She was shortlisted in non-fiction in 1989 for Mother Country, and was shortlisted in fiction in 2008 for Home.

The finalists will be revealed on October 15—eight days after Lila is published.

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The Englewood Review of Books has a BuzzFeed-worthy “top 10” list of recordings of Marilynne Robinson in anticipation of the release of Lila, nowonly two months away! ERB’s list:

  1. Interview with Jon Stewart on ‘The Daily Show’.
  2. ‘The Resurrection of the Ordinary,’ an interview with Paul Elie, senior editor at FSG.
  3. Lecture from the 2012 National Book Festival.
  4. Lecture from the 2009 National Book Festival.
  5. ‘The Threat of Neotribalism’ at Big Think.
  6. An interview with the Center for Theological Inquiry.
  7. Guardian Book Club discussion of Gilead.
  8. An interview about Home from ‘Conversations from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop’.
  9. ‘The Freedom of a Christian’ at The Lumen Christi Institute.
  10. A reading from Gilead at the 92nd Street Y.

We’ve covered many of these items before, but this is a good wrap-up of some of Robinson’s most notable public engagements.

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Marilynne Robinson recently traveled to Israel to attend the International Writer’s Festival in Jerusalem, and she was interviewed by Beth Kissileff in The Jewish Daily Forward about the trip.

Keeping in mind that Robinson’s visit came before the recent conflict, Kissileff asked Robinson, “Obviously, there are many troubles in Israel. Though a writer is not a prophet, what kinds of meaning do you find in those troubles?” Robinson’s response:

The meaning I see, more intensely in Israel than in many places but very generally in the contemporary world, is that human beings are brilliant and profound and a terrible threat to themselves. I know that not all the traditions that revere Genesis find a doctrine of original sin in it. I must say, I do. History illustrates so endlessly how much terrible, unaccountable harm we inflict on ourselves. Israel now seems to me to be dealing with an accumulation of choices and actions on all sides, some made in other places and centuries, that have made a situation beyond human wisdom to resolve. The best approach seems to be one I see in many people there and elsewhere, to act in good faith, with good grace, in every circumstance that calls on them to act. But these overcharged situations excite people who are foolish or unstable or extreme, and they compound every difficulty no matter what most people hope or intend. I concluded some time ago that the world goes on by the grace of God — that nothing else can account for our immunity, relative as it is, from the consequences of our own nature.

As is so often the case, Robinson’s interview goes in many fascinating directions, but rather than quote them all here, we encourage you to read Kissileff’s full piece.

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Back in 2012, Marilynne Robinson wrote an introduction to a new edition of William Faulkner’s ‘The Sound and the Fury.’ Although we missed this, Will McDavid, writing at Mockingbird, took notice:

Maybe it’s her easy command of language, her gently probing (rather than assertively polemical) style of argument, maybe that it’s one of the few pieces I’ve read on Faulkner’s opus that seems like it takes the novel’s now less-than-in-vogue religious sensibilities seriously. At any rate, the publishers got it right with asking her to do it.

Although McDavid provides a few excerpts from Robinson’s essay, to enjoy the full piece, consider this a fine opportunity to pick up Faulkner’s treasured classic—or enjoy it all over again. We should mention, too, that there are echoes of epic southern literature in Lila, so there could hardly be a better time to brush up on that genre’s masterpieces.

(As far as we can tell, the ISBN for the hardcover version containing Robinson’s introduction is 9780679600176.)

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An interview between Marilynne Robinson and George B. Handley in Humanities, a publication of the Brigham Young University College of Humanities. Although the interview took place in 2011 in Salt Lake City, it appears it is just now being published.

As usual, there are many good excepts; this one, on knowledge of others:

I think that lots of us love other people, which overrides the difficulties that are always involved in knowing other people. I think sometimes we intuitively know people much, much more profoundly than we could articulate any knowledge of them. Sometimes people we know very briefly in very bracketed circumstances are people we can feel that we know.

And this, on narrative:

I think we make narrative because we are narrative-making creatures. We enjoy it because we are narrative-enjoying creatures. We weep over the fates of people who don’t exist because for some reason or other they’re paradigmatic for us or they populate our souls, simply because they’re mediated to us through language. This is amazing.

And finally, this piece on fiction, which feels appropriate in the light of Lila’s imminence:

I think fiction should be deeply felt. I think it should aspire to integrity in its own terms. I think it should assume that, like language itself, it’s more brilliant as a phenomenon than it is brilliant in any individual intention.

The latter quote is a working summary of Robinson’s fiction: Deeply felt and aspiring to integrity on its own terms.

Our thanks to reader Robbie Taggert for sending this link. (The link is to an Issuu edition of the magazine; you may need Flash installed on your computer, or the Issuu app on your mobile device, to read the content.)

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Fresh off the FSG Work in Progress site is a brief excerpt of ‘Lila’.

Lila, homeless and alone after years of roaming the countryside, steps inside a small-town Iowa church—the only available shelter from the rain—and ignites a romance and a debate that will reshape her life. She becomes the wife of a minister, John Ames, and begins a new existence while trying to make sense of the life that preceded her newfound security.

Neglected as a toddler, Lila was rescued by Doll, a canny young drifter, and brought up by her in a hardscrabble childhood. Together they crafted a life on the run, living hand to mouth with nothing but their sisterly bond and a ragged blade to protect them. Despite bouts of petty violence and moments of desperation, their shared life was laced with moments of joy and love. When Lila arrives in Gilead, she struggles to reconcile the life of her makeshift family and their days of hardship with the gentle Christian worldview of her husband which paradoxically judges those she loves.

Revisiting the beloved characters and setting of Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Gilead and Home, a National Book Award finalist, Lila is a moving expression of the mysteries of existence that is destined to become an American classic.

Our thanks to Dr. Jennifer Holberg for the tip.

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One of the areas where we expect significant growth in the coming years is the academic study of Robinson’s work. The magnitude of her literary influence being a given, it’s only a matter of time before the floodgates of scholarship open.

In keeping with that, reader Ross Melanson sends us a paper he delivered to the MLA annual convention in 2008, in which he surveys the foundations and motivations of her work, particularly with regard to her Calvinism:

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Many more details about Lila are out now since we’ve last updated—including the beautifully designed cover.

Most importantly, the book will be released on Tuesday, October 7, 2014. Mark your calendars and get in line now! As with every time Robinson releases a new book, we encourage you to buy your copy from a local, independent bookstore.

Review copies are now circulating to a fortunate few. (We haven’t received a review copy; if you’re in a position to do something about this, please do get in touch.) There are a few reviews out already, most notably the review from Publishers Weekly, which describes it as “a masterpiece of prose in the service of the moral seriousness that distinguishes Robinson’s work.” A. O. Scott’s review from the New York Times Book Review is excerpted online, but presumably embargoed until closer to the book’s release date.

Like you, we look forward with great anticipation to this new novel—what is sure to be a forthcoming feast of fine prose.

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