4/10/2015—BOOK REVIEW: LILA BY MARILYNNE ROBINSON
Lila is a novel about nothing and about everything. The plot is simple: an abused, neglected child is stolen by a woman and raised with a band of migrant workers until the woman disappears, and the child, now a young adult, is left to take care of herself. She spends time in a brothel in St. Louis and then one day wanders into Gilead, Iowa, where she meets John Ames, an older preacher whose wife and child died years ago.
The young woman (Lila) and John are drawn to each other by forces that maybe aren’t love, but are just as powerful. They marry, and then, almost by accident, they have a son together. That’s it. That’s the plot. And most of that story is told in flashbacks. The immediate story is the relationship between Lila and John. Within that relationship lies the mystery and the magic of Lila.
John is a deeply religious man who views religion and spirituality with a trusting, yet cautious, attitude. He’s aware there is much about life, both spiritual and physical, that he doesn’t know. For Lila, reading the Bible, baptism, and all the other common religious beliefs and practices are new. She wants to believe, but she has so many questions.
Lila’s most persistent question is why things happen the way they do, which maybe is a reflection of author Marilynne Robinson’s admiration for theologian John Calvin. John Ames talks about Calvin frequently in the novel and points out that Calvin believed people have to suffer in order to recognize grace when it comes.
Lila’s favorite Bible chapter is Ezekiel because she says at least Ezekiel knows what certain things feel like. He knows about people like her and Doll, the woman who abducted her and raised her. Ezekiel hears the “voice above the firmament,” and even though there’s no speech or language, he knows it’s “asking a hard question all the same, something to do with the trouble it was for them to holdup their heads, and where the strength came from that made them do it no matter what.”
The hard times Lila experienced growing up are important to her, and she’s perplexed by John’s belief that “you really can’t account for what happens by what has happened in the past, as you understand it anyway, which may be very different from the past itself.” For John, things that happen are not based on guilt or deserving, but on a future that God freely offers. Lila insists that the past must matter, but then if it does, she wonders why, with all the suffering and sadness she has witnessed, existence doesn’t eventually wrench itself apart.
Lila also worries that Doll isn’t among the “elect,” as John’s preacher friend Boughton explains it. Doll was never baptized, and Lila is sure the scar on Doll’s face is evidence of some deep sin. But John assures her that with God’s grace, Doll will be safe. Lila imagines Doll in heaven, “ugly with all the troubles of her life.” Without that, Lila thinks she might not know her.
In the end Robinson answers the profound questions she raises as well as anyone can answer questions about eternity and about life. To me, she is the quintessential literary novelist. Her prose is richly packed with ideas about the universe and insights into who human beings are, and yet it flows as sweet and smooth as cream.
Like Ezekiel, Robinson knows what life feels like. She has a way of describing feelings and thoughts that makes readers realize maybe they never truly experienced them before. In one scene she talks about how Lila wanted to “feel trust rise up in her like that sweet old surprise of being carried off in strong arms, wrapped in a gentleness worn all soft and perfect.” Gentleness is important to Lila. She says that if she had ever prayed in her old life it might have been for the gentleness she’s found with John. And if she prayed now, it would be remembering the comfort he put around her. “It was a shock to her, a need she only discovered when it was satisfied.”
Lila and John are both lonely when they meet, but as Robinson says in a New York Times Magazine interview, loneliness is not a problem—it’s a condition, more like a passion. And out of that condition comes the wondrous relationship of Lila and John, in many ways a relationship of minds and souls, in which the older, more experienced spirit and the young, questioning spirit merge and change.
In his Late Last Night Books post in February, Garry Craig Powell talked about defining genius and how few writers of true genius have graced this earth. I don’t know if Marilynne Robinson is a genius, but her writing elevates my soul and my intellect, and for me, that is enough.