Lila by Marilynne Robinson
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Publication Date: October 7, 2014
Length: 272 pages
Source: Library copy
Marilynne Robinson’s newest book Lila is a beautifully written, character-driven novel about a remarkable woman and her journey from suffering and abandonment to love and grace.
The Story: Quite simply, Lila is the story of a woman named Lila who has lived her life on the road as a poor, itinerant laborer. Lila doesn’t know her real name; a tough woman named Doll stole her away from her neglectful home when Lila was a small girl. Doll and Lila eke out a hand to mouth existence filled with much hardship, and sometimes with joys; but as an adult, without Doll, Lila finds mostly loneliness and desperation.
Sometime in the 1940s, Lila arrives in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, and forms an unlikely friendship with the town’s minister, Rev. John Ames. Although Ames is much older than Lila, and although Lila has lived a life untouched by religion, these two lonely souls marry, surprising the residents of the town as well as themselves. Lila, uncertain she can bear to remain in this settled life, so different from her rough past, soon finds that she is carrying her husband’s child.
My Thoughts: I’ve never read Marilynne Robinson before. Some readers and reviewers have suggested that you should not attempt Lila before reading Gilead, because Lila is in fact a kind of prequel to Robinson's 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Robinson has also written another novel, Home, with some of the same characters. But to be honest, Gilead never appealed to me; the novel is written as a letter by Rev. Ames, now dying at the age of 77, to his 7-year-old son. Despite the praise and critical acclaim, I simply didn’t feel drawn to the subject matter.
When I read about Lila, though, I felt compelled to hear the story of Lila’s strange and nearly feral upbringing. I wanted to experience her story and know something about her process of coming in from the wild, so to speak, and how she decided to marry a man several decades her senior.
If you know anything about Robinson, you know that religion is a major theme of her work. There are many of scriptural references in this novel (Ezekiel and Job—not, perhaps, the most accessible Biblical stories), and Lila wrestles with the concepts of baptism and salvation, and the question of whether those she loved in her previous hardscrabble life would be harshly judged by God. The religious elements, truthfully, weren’t what kept me deeply engrossed in Robinson’s story.
Instead, it was the beautifully drawn and nuanced character of Lila herself that interested me throughout this book—Robinson skillfully brings this woman to life. Lila’s surrogate mother Doll is a wonderful, richly drawn character as well. I was fascinated by Lila’s childhood on the road, by her complex relationship with Doll, and by her difficult experiences as a young woman in a St Louis brothel. I found myself absolutely riveted by the question of whether Lila, a survivor of much trauma and too little kindness, could learn to give and receive love and lead an ordinary domestic life.
And Robinson’s writing is a delight—subtle and fluid, but with many layers of meaning. Some reviews have faulted Robinson for telling Lila’s story in the third person, suggesting it would have had more power as a first person narrative, similar to Ames’s direct first person voice in her previous book. I can’t compare Lila to Gilead, but I thought Lila’s story as Robinson chose to tell it was enormously powerful indeed.
And, let me say, I disagree that you must read one of the other Gilead novels before Lila; I think Lila can stand alone as a work of fiction without connection to the previous novels. I would recommend this novel, but mainly to those who love literary fiction and are comfortable with character-driven novels. I would rate Lila, which has been shortlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction, a four out of five stars.