Marilynne Robinson’s newest novel, “Lila,” tells the story of a woman plucked from her family’s doorstep by a migrant worker, Doll, subsisting on farm work from one cornfield to the next. When we first meet her, an adult Lila has been waiting out the days in a small Iowa town, sleeping in a shack and idly tending the town preacher’s garden. She and the preacher, John Ames, develop a strange intimacy borne of Lila’s spontaneous gestures of affection, her poverty and vulnerability, her abrupt, disarming questions about God and religion.
As their relationship deepens, Lila confronts the many hardships of her past, trying to reconcile her pervasive feelings of shame and loneliness with the admiration and appreciation she incites so naturally in the wise old reverend. Between haunting flashbacks of her past, sparse, charged conversations with the reverend in the strange tranquility of their new home together and long passages revealing her passing thoughts about faith, loneliness and love, we get a searing portrait of a mysterious, paradoxical character, reflecting the deep mystery of life itself.
Lila’s relationship with the preacher is often shrouded in long, loaded silences. Her memories of being a prostitute, washing bloodstains off her caretaker after a knife fight, sleeping in the dirt with a wet rag over her face to shut out the dust, are confided to the reader in detail and then guarded from him, replaced by searching, philosophical questions about the Bible and offhand, defensive warnings like “You don’t know me” and “I never trust anyone.”
As for the reverend, we can only glean as much about his feelings and thoughts as Lila shares from the outside: his ongoing attempts to make her comfortable in a domestic, ladylike setting, his fears that she’ll leave, coupled with his pains to give her space, his deliberately unresolved, open responses when they discuss religion. His strong attraction to Lila appears to be connected to his intuitive beliefs about God and grace, as if Lila’s earnestness and honesty strikes a nerve in his lifelong pursuit of Christian truths. He marvels at the doggedness with which she seeks out difficult chapters from the Bible, like Job and Ezekial. The instinctive kind of raw kindness that Lila demonstrates to strangers, including his deceased wife and son, whose graves she attends with roses. The boldness with which she seeks him out, stealing his sweater, and asking him to marry her, then retreats, grappling with openness and trust. He often comments on her unpredictable nature. We can gather that her ability to surprise him is one primary reason she stirs him up. But the mystery of their bond, balanced by small, rich moments that we witness feeding it, reinforces the intensity and sacredness of falling in love.
There’s a scene where Lila returns to the shack she’d been barely surviving in before they met, presumably to retrieve a jar of money hidden under the floorboards but more deeply because returning to that place of poverty and isolation makes her feel like herself again. She feels compelled to escape the reverend’s trusting, forgiving embrace. When she gets there, she meets a boy who ran away after hitting his father with firewood, possibly killing him. Out of pity she leaves him her coat and the money, wandering back home without protection from the bitter cold. The reverend is out looking for her when she crawls shivering into their bed, and when he gets home, he’s pale, weary, drawn, visibly shaken by Lila’s disappearance and the sight of a potential murderer wearing her things. She tells him she felt sorry for the boy and his eyes fill up with tears, saying “I do know you.”
Given their vast differences — his education, social connectedness and familial roots in the town, her nomadic childhood, piecing together a fluid perception of the world from one field, one odd job to the next — their union highlights a truth that applies to all relationships, though it is exaggerated in their case: the fact that every human being is fundamentally a mystery to each other, no matter how familiar. That loneliness isn’t a product of being alone or even a lack of intimacy, but rather arises from fleeting impressions of the world’s vast contradictions. And so Lila’s loneliness persists. For example, she struggles with the notion that her beloved Doll was apathetic toward religion, and in the most objective sense, a grave sinner. Her loyalty and love for Doll puts her at a distance from the reverend, whose worldview doesn’t allow Doll the same wholehearted acceptance and unequivocal loyalty.
I read the Pulitzer Prize winning “Gilead” about five or six years ago, to which Lila is the prequel. In “Gilead,” the reverend writes to his and Lila’s now seven-year old son as he prepares to die. As with most books, I hardly remember any specifics, only the general impression that it was sad, spiritually rich and beautifully written, that I remember loving it. “Gilead” is absolutely worth a read, but it’s worth mentioning that “Lila” stands alone from it, self-contained in its exploration of similar themes such as the workings of grace and the mystery of everyday life.
And Robinson’s language is a reason unto itself. As with “Gilead,” her writing about Lila is pared down, concrete and immediate, grounded in what Lila observes, remembers and wonders. In Lila’s humble way of taking in her surroundings and weighing her past, never overreaching for meaning or presuming to understand life’s mysterious nature, the prose possesses an elegance and astuteness. On that note, I’ll leave you with a handful of my favorite quotes:
“Doll may have been the loneliest woman in the world, and she was the loneliest child, and there they were, the two of them together, keeping each other warm in the rain.”
“She loved the smell of dirt, and the feel of it. She had to make herself wash it off her hands.”
“Lila’s thoughts were strange sometimes. They always had been. She had hoped getting baptized might help with it, but it didn’t.”
“She knew a little about existence. That was pretty well the only thing she knew about, and she had learned the word for it from him. It was like the United States of America — they had to call it something.”
“In that letter he had said there’s no such thing as safety. Existence can be fierce, she did know that. A storm can blow up out of a quiet day, wind that takes your life out of your hands, your soul out of your body.”
“The old man would look into her face for sadness or weariness, and she would turn her face away, since there was no telling what he might see in it, her thoughts being what they were.”
“Now here she had this preacher, maybe the kindest man in the world, and no idea what to do with him.”
“She thought for a few days that she must have come to the end of her life, because it felt so much like the beginning of it.”
“So. ‘Things happen for reasons that are hidden from us, utterly hidden for as long as we think they must proceed from what has come before, our guilt or our deserving, rather than coming to us from a future that God in his freedom offers to us.’”
“‘I can’t love you as much as I love you. I can’t feel as happy as I am.’”
For more about “Lila,” here is the New York Times book review.