SPENCE + LILA by Bobbie Ann Mason
Kirkus Star


Email this review


Mason's short novel (one in the Harper Short Novel series) concerns a Western Kentucky couple, Spence and Lila, weathering one of life's major storms: serious illness. Lila, in her late 50s or so, is afflicted with breast cancer and a blocked carotid artery; all in one hospital stay she has a mastectomy and surgery to clear her blood vessel. Her husband Spence, a farmer, attends her with awe and fear, helped somewhat (though hardly enough) by his grown daughters and son. Meanwhile, the hospital and its confident, chilly procedures is a new world to both Spence and the earthy, marvelously good-humored Lila--but it is Mason's special gift here to keep both Spence and Lila from ever being swamped. Both have a resilience compounded from memory; surprising attitudes (old Spence, for instance, has an unaccountable taste for rock 'n' roll--which lends him a strangeness and youth that are very appealing; a scene in the hospital room when Mick Jagger and Tina Turner come on the TV, inches over Lila's postsurgical body, is startling); and both share a trust in the daily that steadily has marked Mason's work (Shiloh and Other Stories, In Country). There is a good deal of waiting in this book, but never is it used as dead-time, to be filled in with character-study or authorial sociology; Mason's artistry instead allows the time to be filled with vagrant yet moving recollection--and in this, the book bears some relation to one of the very greatest short novels of the century, Eudora Welty's The Optimist's Daughter. Deceptively straightforward, a book that goes further in the direction that Mason seems to be re-freshing in her recent short stories--with the pastoral, modern life a kind of nimbus around good heads like Lila's and Spence's but not the essential stuff of them by any means: love, memory, and death being that instead.

Pub Date: June 29th, 1988
Publisher: Harper & Row