Three novels: Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, Jane Smiley’s Some Luck, Marilynne Robinson’s Lila

imagesIn the past few weeks I have read Sarah Waters The Paying Guests, Jane Smiley’s Some Luck, and Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, all written by writers at the top of their game and reviewed widely.

Sarah Waters writes literary period pieces set in England with lesbian heroines…mostly. The Paying Guests is set in post-WWI London in the home of a mother and her 26-year-old daughter needing to make some extra money, so they take in a married couple as boarders. The social class issues are beautifully detailed, as only Waters can  do, but the novel is a love story between Frances and paying guest Lillian. The first third of the book is about their developing relationship…the secrets and the hiding, and expert depiction of the psychological nuances of the young women’s inner lives. Their sex scenes are very well written, as Waters is an expert on the topic. Then the novel turns crime story.  I won’t give any of it away, but I will say that Waters deals with themes of naivete, deception and consequences in a suspenseful and complex manner. Bravo.

I cannot help but complare Jane Smiley’s Some Luck to Marilynne Robinson’s Lilaas they are both written by Pulitzer winning female novelists and both are sagas set in Iowa. First off, Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (Pulitzer Prize) is one of my favorite novels of all time. Others of hers have not rung my bell. This one has mixed reviews. The novel opens in 1920 on a farm in Iowa and follows a young family through 30 years, with the birth of their children and each chapter titled 1920, 1921, etc. It is a wide-sweeping family saga…unfortunately with no drama. The parents did not interest me. It bothered me that she created a male first-born of 6 children; it could have been so much more interesting, a different kind of story, if the first born was a girl.  Frank becomes the protagonist…and in a very strange way. Smiley puts thoughts in his head starting around age one. This spoiled it for me. Jane: either you are writing a straight-forward family saga, or you can do surrealism or even science fiction, but no one knows what is going on in the head of a baby! Some Luck goes year by year telling the comings and goings of farm family life in Iowa. Kind of ho hum for me…even though the woman knows how to write! I kept going hoping it would get better. It just stopped in 1953.

Lila is the third in a kind of family saga set in Iowa, with Home and Gilead (Pulitzer Prize) preceding this novel. In contrast to Smiley’s chapters all titled in years, Lila has no chapters. It is written is a kind of free association style, with plot and revery interwoven. Lila comes from the worst of humankind, is ‘stolen’ from her horrible parents (who we  actually know nothing about) by a woman, Doll, who deeply cares for her but is a somewhat paranoid drifter. We have to imagine that her ‘stolen’ life was better than the life she was born into, but it was awful as well. She is the archetypal neglected loner…also kind of wild and feral. She is smart, but with only one year of school. This story is about how she comes to live with and marry an old preacher…who is extremely kind, and with whom she experiences unconditional love and stability for the first time. Good story…but it is mostly a religious story; John, the preacher, is her savior. Lots of existential questions and answers, and lots of Protestant theology, which I was not that interested in. Also, the writing is extraordinarily chaste. Two major examples of this are: 1) Lila spent many years working in a ‘whorehouse’. Sex is never mentioned. 2) Lila gets pregnant after marrying the old preacher. Sex is never mentioned. Ultimately, this book is about a woman’s experience of cruelty and suffering and finally finding loving kindness.



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