Lila (2014)

by Marilynne Robinson

Lila, the wife of the protagonist in Gilead, is a quiet and mysterious character in the book that led off Marilynn Robinson’s trilogy about the Ames and Boughton families of Gilead, Iowa. She comes out of the shadows in the third volume, which bears her name.

As a child Lila was snatched from a Depression-era workhouse by a vagabond named Doll. Drifting with and devotion to Doll constitute Lila’s youth. When Doll kills a man to protect Lila and flees from the law, Lila, by then an adult, is left alone. After a stint in a whorehouse, she eventually takes shelter in an abandoned shack outside Gilead.

One day, to escape the rain, she ducks into the Rev. John Ames’s church during services. Ames feels a shock of recognition, but their next encounters are so reserved that Lila surprises herself when she blurts out, “You ought to marry me.”

Rev. Ames is literate, spiritual, gentle, and twice Lila’s age. She is rough, uneducated, and distrustful of religion — and of everything else. They have loneliness in common. He has lived alone for decades after losing his first wife and their baby. Ames will be a father again. The child Lila is carrying is the seven-year-old son in Gilead to whom Ames is writing a letter.

Robinson does not tell the story linearly but shifts between past and present. The most moving parts of Lila are the conversations in which intimacy and love grow between Lila and Ames. She asks questions about the meaning of existence; the modest Rev. Ames won’t answer dogmatically but is happy to discuss. Theirs isn’t an easy bonding; trust and stability are foreign to Lila’s experience, and she considers whether she should leave.

Like Gilead, Lila contains a both a story and a spiritual disquisition. Robinson, a devout Christian and admirer of Calvin, has a rare ability to write about faith and theology without turning off those who don’t share her beliefs. Passages in her novels about the big questions might serve as devotional readings. 

The book in between Gilead and Lila is Home (2008), featuring the Boughtons.


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