06 Nov / Lila by Marilynne Robinson
In 2004, Gilead gave voice to the aging Reverend John Ames, who recognizes he will not live to see his 7-year-old son grow up and so creates an epistolary record of all that he will never be able to share with his boy. Four years later, Home featured the tattered family of Ames’ longtime friend and sometime theological adversary, Reverend Robert Boughton, whose two recently returned, heartache-suffering adult children face the approaching loss of their elderly father. The two titles deservedly received major award recognition, including the 2005 Pulitzer Prize and 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award for Gilead, and the 2009 Orange Prize and a 2008 National Book Award finalist nod for Home.
As the latest of three (thus far) parallel titles about life in the tiny town of Gilead, Iowa, Lila debuted just last month and is already poised for its own accolades, considered the most likely to win the 2014 National Book Award (stay tuned: the announcement happens November 19). Lila, I cannot tell a lie, is also my favorite.
For those just learning about Robinson’s remarkable trio, might I suggest that you begin backwards with Lila, even if reading out of publishing order disrupts Robinson’s storytelling intentions. To learn what we can of Lila’s past – including the gaps that will remain forever unknowable even to Lila – adds richer, surprising layers to both Gilead and Home; as wondrous as those novels both are, the ‘aha!’ factor will be exponentially greater if you start with Lila.
For a woman who knows so little – about her family, her upbringing, her geography, her future – Lila is unexpectedly wise, albeit thoroughly blunt, beyond her years. Rescued as a sickly toddler from a house of decay and neglect by Doll, Lila grows up surviving hand-to-mouth, constantly in flight. Doll pauses in one place just long enough for Lila to learn to read and do basic math. Her only stability is knowing that Doll is never far. Until she isn’t …
Lila is left alone to endure betrayal, violence, prostitution, and servitude, and eventually finds herself living in a shack on the outskirts of Gilead. Picking up the odd jobs in town from pious women eager to help the less fortunate, she catches the eye of the Reverend John Ames. He’s a tragic figure, still wrestling decades later with the demons who stole his wife and daughter in childbirth. He’s old, lonely, kind, and inexplicably drawn to Lila. She, in turn, recognizes a truly gentle man who she fears might be too good to be true, ready and willing to give her a life beyond her most yearning dreams. And yet even after marriage, during pregnancy, neither feels secure that the other will stay. As they settle into their shared existence, Lila continues to ask her good Reverend all the difficult questions which, decades of contemplative life later, he still can’t answer. And so their lives quietly move on …
If you choose to go aural, Maggie Hoffman offers a resonating, plain-spoken narration, exquisitely imbued with nervous doubt and wide-eyed wonder. Her Lila is exactly as Robinson intended: a woman of integrity and candor, awkward in her naiveté, hesitant about her welcome, skeptical of her own intelligence, devoted in her attachments. Trust me: after almost 300 pages or nearly nine hours of keeping such fierce, intense company, you, too, will be loathe to let Lila go … more reason perhaps to return to Gilead and Home.