Monday, February 23, 2015

"Lila," by Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson’s 1980 novel, “Housekeeping,” was amazing and wonderful. Years later, Robinson published first “Gilead” and then “Home,” two related novels about two ministers and their families in a small town in the Midwest. I somehow – probably revealing shallowness on my part – didn’t feel like reading all the theological discussion that the reviews mentioned. And when the third novel in this trilogy of related novels came out, I still resisted. But something about the descriptions in reviews, and perhaps the fact that this novel focused on a woman character, drew me to read it. After all, I knew what a terrific writer Robinson was. So I did read “Lila” (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014), and found it one of the most original novels I have read lately, with the main character, Lila, having a distinct and very individual voice. This novel is unique, and I almost don’t know how to write about it to convey its power. As a young child, Lila is rescued from a chaotic childhood by a homeless woman, Doll, who raises her in a precarious life, but with fierce love and care. Due to various events that happen to Doll, when Lila becomes an adult, she is on her own. She finds herself working in a brothel, then leaves and wanders some more, as she and Doll did during her childhood. By chance, she stumbles into the town of Gilead, Iowa, and is drawn to a church there, initially just for shelter and peace. In what seems like an extremely unlikely relationship, but one that somehow works, she and the aging minister, John Ames, grow close, eventually marry, and have a child. The minister was a widower; years before, he had lost both his wife and new child at childbirth. These seemingly completely mismatched characters, both good at heart, but Lila wary, find themselves discussing existence, God, meaning, and more. Lila is not educated, but she clearly has a fine mind and highly developed perception. She loves to read the Bible, as the stories speak to her. She is not sure what she believes, but wants to talk and think about existential and moral questions. Ames is loving, gentle, and patient with her, and is grateful that she is in his life. This unlikely relationship, and the questions about God and the meaning of life that the two characters explore, separately and together, somehow create – very unexpectedly – a compelling and satisfying narrative. Don’t let the summary of the odd plot and characters discourage you; this is masterful writing and provides a unique reading experience.


  1. So are you going to now read the first two books in the trilogy? (I have not read any of them, but just wondered if this one inspires you to read the others.)

  2. Good question, Mary! I thought about it, but I don't think I will read them, or at least not now. As much as I admired and enjoyed and was impressed by Lila, I am still not inclined to read the other two novels, for pretty much the same (shallow, as I said) reasons as before. Maybe I will change my mind in the future...


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