Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

Guest Post: Sarah Puryear on Suffering, Grace, and the Queen of the Melancholy Novel

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FullSizeRenderSarah Puryear – like me – married into the family.  Well done, cousin Dan!  You won the lottery!

Sarah serves as a priest at St. George’s Episcopal Church here in Nashville, where she finds a great sense of purpose and fulfillment in her work.  She’s just reduced her hours a bit, since she and Dan now have baby Hays at home.  At five months old, he’s a total sweetheart but still keeping them up at night.  “He’ll learn to sleep at some point, right?” Sarah asks.  I try to dodge that question, as the answer isn’t always pretty.  But yes – at some point, certainly!

Hays better go ahead and get his sleep organized, as Sarah is very orderly.  She loves to sort the mail and “takes a ridiculous amount of pleasure out of getting us off junk mailing lists.”  Ironing bothers her because she’s never fully pleased with the results.

Sarah’s smart self-sufficiency may have roots in her childhood in Portland, Maine.  She loves visiting her parents there, who still live in the same farmhouse where she grew up.  Though she has fully embraced Nashville as home, she’s never completely lost her sense of being from Maine (“a Maniac as some would call us”).  She hopes to keep going back at Christmas for the snow!  I’m not surprised that she couldn’t get enough of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series as a child.

That being said, her imagination doesn’t stop at the American shoreline.  Sarah is fascinated by Italy, having traveled there at three very different stages of life: high school, college, and then last fall with Dan.  She loves learning more about the country’s history, driving through the countryside, exploring old churches, and of course enjoying its culinary magnificence.  Next up on her dream list is Sicily.

Today, Sarah shares her thoughts on a book that’s received a lot of attention lately, including a National Book Award nomination and multiple “Top Picks of 2014” – Lila, by Marilynne Robinson.

From Sarah:

Unknown-10Marilynne Robinson has a fascination with sad stories.  Now that I’ve read three of her novels – Housekeeping, Gilead, and Lila – I’d award her the title Queen of the Melancholy Novel, because she has managed to make me cry at some point while reading all three of them.  I find her sort of sadness particularly poignant; she touches a deep nerve with her reflections on loneliness, the transience of life, and the fleeting moments of connection that are possible between two human beings.  Robinson continues to explore these themes in her new novel Lila.

Sounds like a barrel of laughs, huh?  I realize this description might not send Bacon readers flocking to the bookstore to pick up their own copy of Lila.  But while there’s much to shed tears over in this book, there’s also much to savor.  Lila tells the story of an itinerant woman who arrives in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, and ends up marrying John Ames, the old preacher man whom she meets there.  Their marriage is unexpected, to say the least; the Rev. Ames is a much beloved and respected elder in the town, while Lila is a poor and uneducated woman with a dubious past.  This unconventional relationship and its redemptive effect on Lila is at the heart of Robinson’s story.

Lila’s backstory emerges over the course of the book in a meandering way, as the narrative switches back and forth between the main story set in Gilead and scenes from Lila’s earlier life.  As a child, Lila was snatched from her abusive family by a woman named Doll, who took Lila on as her own child and then joined a group of nomadic workers, taking whatever temporary jobs they could find to survive.  As fragments of Lila’s story emerge, her struggle to adjust to her new life in Gilead becomes understandable; her past experiences of deprivation and loss make it hard for her to trust Ames and the stability and companionship that he offers her.

Ames has a different way of seeing the past that his new wife brings to their marriage; he considers it not an albatross around her neck but a potential gift of perspective.  Ames tells Lila that according to the theologian John Calvin, “people have to suffer to really recognize grace when it comes.”  Ames goes on to say, “I guess I’ve had my time of suffering… I’ve had enough of it by now to know that this is grace.”  By “this,” Ames means his marriage to Lila, which is his second due to the untimely death of his first wife.  His earlier loss enables him to appreciate more fully what a gift it is to have this new chapter of life with Lila.  The relationship between suffering and understanding grace is a mystery, not one that Ames as a Presbyterian pastor or I as an Episcopal priest can fully tease out or explain to anyone.  It is easily distorted into the misguided idea that therefore suffering is good or that God inflicts it on us to make us grateful for the silver linings in life.  Instead, I believe Robinson would agree that because of God’s grace, suffering can be redeemed.  While it is truly bad and not intended by God, it can become the opportunity for something truly good to occur.  In the aftermath of suffering, grace may surprise and comfort us as it surprises and comforts Ames and Lila.

This reflection on the nature of suffering is a good example of why I find Robinson’s writing unique and compelling.  It is hard to find authors who write from a faith perspective but avoid the truisms and easy answers that characterize much of what is marketed as Christian literature today.  I keep reading Robinson’s novels because she deals with the most serious subjects possible – the meaning of existence, of suffering, and of joy – in a way that honors her story, her characters, and her readers.  Early in the book, we are told that “She [Lila] liked to hear people tell stories.  The saddest ones were the best.  She wondered if that meant anything at all.”  While Robinson acknowledges the sources of deep sadness in this world, she also gives glimpses of the deep beauty that exists here as well.   I can handle a big dose of sadness when the author gives me hope that grace is a more fundamental reality of our world than the suffering we encounter.  For this reason I’d say that Lila proves that yes, it does mean something that the saddest stories are the best.

 

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