The University of Iowa

Book Review: Marilynne Robinson's Lila


It is safe to say that Marilynne Robinson is among Iowa City’s most prized literary talents. An instructor at the Writers’ Workshop, both her fiction and nonfiction works have been hailed by critics and casual readers alike. Her second novel, Gilead won both the 2005 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The list of her accolades is long, and all of which have encouraged great anticipation of  her latest novel, a companion to Gilead and Home, which follows the life of Reverend Ames’ wife before she wanders into his church, his garden, and his life.

The novel opens on a dark night with Lila, a yet unnamed little girl, sitting alone on a stoop in the dark. She has been ill-treated, covered in scratches and bruises. A young woman named Doll picks her up and carries her into the house. With the help of another woman, Doll puts the girl in a tub heated with water from the kettle on the stove and attempts to bathe her. Lila resists, struggling and cursing as they try to cleanse her of filth. After this, we follow the pair throughout Lila's childhood as they lead the lives of vagrants, traveling from countryside to countryside and town to town in the gentle, lyrical prose that readers have come to expect from Robinson's fiction.

The second half of the novel begins with an event parallel to the beginning. Reverend Ames baptizes Lila. Again she resists, but this time it is an internal struggle.The religiosity of the novel will be unsurprising to anyone familiar with Robinson's work. What may surprise any reader though, is the gentleness of it. There is no fire and brimstone from the young woman whose inmost thoughts and feelings are revealed to us throughout the book. Rather, we encounter a quiet, reflective voice which spends no small amount of time trying to reconcile her new life, settled as a preacher's wife, with the lives of the people she knew before. A large portion of Lila's life before Gilead is related through flashback, in which she reflects on Doll, other vagrants from her youth, and her companions from her stint in a whorehouse in St. Louis. In juxtaposition with her bookish, small-town minister, Lila often considers herself an ignorant woman, but the novel works hard to show how her personal sufferings and sordid past have given her an almost unquestionable ethos.

During the Iowa City Book Festival a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend Robinson's reading at the Englert. Soon after my arrival every other seat in the massive building appeared occupied. Robinson read an excerpt that describes Lila, already largely pregnant, encountering a young man at the shack where she stayed before her marriage to the minister. The teenager is on the run, scruffy, and possibly a murderer, but Lila seems more comfortable with him than most other characters in the novel. They sit on the stoop of the old hideout and talk, while eating cheese and crackers. The young man's initial reserve melts away as he tells his story. The reading concluded just as the boy finished his confession, comforted by Lila's concern. In Lila, as in Robinson's previous two novels, when the reader enters the town of Gilead, it is a balm. Not that her characters are always peaceful or exempt from hard circumstances, but the pervading feeling of this novel is calmness. You can trust that when you open the book, you'll be in good hands.

Following the reading was an informal interview conducted by Ayana Mathis, a former student of Robinson's and author of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. Their conversation circled around themes of marginality, specifically as it relates to lower classes. Robinson acknowledged that she liked talking about people whose identities are not determined by social responsibilities because she considers them to be more purely themselves, like the vagrants in Lila. She said that the beginning of each novel for her is when she can clearly here the protagonist's voice. In Gilead it was Reverend Ames, who Robinson referred to as her north star. When asked about the view of Lila, Robinson replied that the minister's wife "sees the world as the psalmist does" which, judging from the beauty of her novels, just might be how Robinson sees the world herself.