I finished reading "Spence + Lila" on the morning of my 25th wedding anniversary, and I can't think of a more heartening gift than this unsentimentally affectionate depiction of a marriage nearly twice as old as mine. This is a love story; and if Spence and Lila Culpepper seem unlikely protagonists, a rural Kentucky couple in their 60s, Bobbie Ann Mason's choice suggests that we ought to reevaluate the conventions that acknowledge romantic and sexual love only in lithe golden youths, preferably those with enough wealth, either inherited or amassed through the stock market, to dwell in glittering condos and drive fast red convertibles through the California sunshine. In a country whose population of elderly people is burgeoning, such a revision seems crucial to our ability to love and celebrate our aging selves.
The action of "Spence + Lila" occurs during two weeks when Lila undergoes radical surgery first for breast cancer and then for a clogged artery in her neck. Except during Spence's brief, awkward visits to the hospital in Paducah, they are separated for the first time since Spence served in the Pacific in World War II, a foretaste of the final separation they face. Once, such a separation would have been unthinkable. After their children were grown and Spence's parents had died and they were "alone for the first time in their marriage, they felt as though they would live forever. They could never imagine one of them without the other." Now, haltingly, they begin to make ready. "If Lila didn't make it through the second operation, her funeral could be as early as next week," Spence thinks as he tosses alone in their bed. "She might die tomorrow" Lila's mind echoes.
The chapters alternate between Spence's and Lila's point of view, and such resonances are frequent as both of them range freely through the past and present. Their recollections of their early years of marriage, during the war, necessarily diverge: Spence huddled in the noisy and noisome hold of a destroyer, Lila clinging to their first daughter in the cramped and chilly home of Spence's parents. Even their shared memories differ in imagery: Lila is apt to think in terms of the sewing she did at home and in a local factory; Spence, of the dairy cattle they used to raise.
More often, though, they remember the same incidents in similar terms, in the way people who have been intimate for a long time have of continuing one another's thoughts. They fret similarly about their children. They cherish their lives in terms that reflect their satisfaction with life on the land. "She and Spence have spent a lifetime growing things together," Lila reflects. Surveying his farm, Spence thinks, "Everyone always wants a way out of something like this, but what he has here is the main thing there is--just the way things grow and die, the way the sun comes up and goes down every day. These are the facts of life."
The earthiness of their affections translates itself into sexual desire. Leafing through a women's magazine, Lila contemplates an advertisement: "The boy in the underwear ad is young enough to be Lila's grandson, but he makes her feel a twinge of desire. She wishes she could go home right now and get in bed with Spence." Spence gazes at his property from a neighbor's crop-dusting plane for the first time: "The woods are like hair, the two creeks like the parting of a woman's legs, the house and barn her nipples . . . Spence wonders if he's losing his mind. Maybe seeing the land that way only means that his mind is on Lila coming home." Lila does indeed come home, plunging immediately into her neglected garden, and the book ends with her hearty laughter in response to a bawdy proposition from Spence.
If Lila perceives any defect in Spence, it's that he's "bashful and silent at all the wrong moments." Spence senses the problem himself: "At times there is no way on earth he can say what he feels." Lila, too, feels inarticulate, struggling with "all her complicated thoughts that she has never been able to express." Awkward silence in the face of ideas and feelings is a common human frailty, but it represents a limitation in "Spence + Lila," constraining Mason to rush her story and keep to its surface. Perhaps I'm greedy, but I liked Spence and Lila, and their children in the brief glimpses I got of them, so well that I'd have liked to know more about them. If I perceive any defect in "Spence + Lila," it's that this is a short novel which could well have been long.
"Spence + Lila" joins two other new novels with paired protagonists, Eric Kraft's "Herb 'n' Lorna" and Peter Carey's "Oscar & Lucinda." I'm not certain about the significance of this spate of couplings, unless it's that we really are, as sociologists and psychologists aver, emerging from the "me" generation to a renewed desire for human connection. If so, the unconventional conjunctions in all three titles suggest that these pairs may not simply duplicate old orthodoxies about love. But whereas 'n' implies folksiness and the ampersand connotes corporate partnership, the plus sign characterizes a mathematical equation: 1 + 1 = 2. Spence plus Lila does not equal two, however. Physically, it results in three: Nancy, Lee, and Cat, their grown children. Emotionally, it forms a new unity. In choosing this conjunctive form, Mason emphasizes that human equations create their own idiosyncratic and astonishing solutions.