Review: Marilynne Robinson's 'Lila' a vibrant vision of the past

Published Nov. 12, 2014

For those of us who know and love Marilynne Robinson's luminous novels, Lila is a dearly awaited friend. Robinson has chronicled the fictional Ames family of Iowa from the Civil War to the 1950s, in books that began with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead and continued with Home. With this third novel, we finally learn the story of one of the series' most intriguing characters: the old minister's mysterious young wife.

Lila, we soon learn, was a neglected child who was rescued — or arguably abducted — by an itinerant worker named Doll. As Doll becomes her surrogate mother, the two connect with a band of ramblers traveling through the Midwest of the Great Depression, looking for farming work and avoiding trouble. The days are hard, there isn't much food, and keeping clean is a battle.

At the risk of being discovered, Doll settles in a town for a year so Lila can go to school and learn basic reading, writing and arithmetic. Doll can't give Lila much in the way of material comfort, but she does give her companionship and enduring love. Doll's sacrifices end up causing their separation ­— there's a knife fight when Lila's relatives come looking for her — which is what puts Lila on her journey to Gilead, with a depressing stop at a St. Louis brothel along the way.

All this is told in Robinson's looping narrative style, going forward and backward in time. The anchor is Lila's own stream of conscious as she recalls events, from her early childhood to later marriage and motherhood. A courtship — Lila walking into the town of Gilead and falling in love with the minister John Ames — is the element that propels the plot. Lila has survived a hard-scrabble childhood without any religious upbringing at all, yet she ends up in a marriage of equals with a minister who's something of a Bible scholar and a meditative philosopher. How does that happen?

Their courtship begins when Lila enters Ames' Congregationalist church and asks to be baptized. "Nobody seen to it for me when I was a child," she tells him. As she and Ames get to know each other, the themes of Lila come to their full fruition. The book contemplates what it means to know and be known, whether redemption is possible, and why living in a community is both comforting and challenging. It's no coincidence that their relationship deepens as Lila makes her way toward the waters of baptism.

In its themes, Lila mines the same vein as Gilead, the earlier novel that is set years after Lila and Ames marry. In both books, Ames is astounded at the good fortune of marrying again and having a family; the wife of his youth died in childbirth. But Ames' new joy is leavened by the fact that he knows old age will prevent him seeing his son grow to adulthood.

Gilead is a first-person letter written by Ames to his son, including memories of his own relationship with his father, a pacifist who opposed World War I, and his grandfather, a fiery abolitionist who saw righteous violence as the way to correct grave injustice. Those large historical themes give way in Lila to the daily lives of common people during the Great Depression.

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In many ways, Lila is an old-fashioned story, steeped in early 20th century Protestantism. But thanks in part to Robinson's writing, the novel seems surprising, even revelatory, with its philosophical meditations on companionship and love. It's a dreamy, sepia-toned past that is at once vibrant and alive.

Angie Drobnic Holan is the editor of PolitiFact, the Times' national politics fact-checking website. Contact her at Follow @AngieHolan