Author: Marilynne Robinson
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover Edition: 261 pages
Source: Library Copy
Lila follows Gilead, the book for which Robinson won the Pulitzer in 2005. In Gilead Robinson told the story of John Ames a small-town pastor in southern Iowa. In Lila we read the story of his much younger second wife. Her early life was a hand-to-mouth existence of material deprivation, neglect and abandonment by her birth family, and so she struggles with a new life of basic comfort after she marries the old preacher. Kindness appears in many places and many guises. The currency of kindness changes those who give it and those who receive it.
Lila is a book to be savored at a slow pace. It will not be hurried. There is wisdom to be pondered, some of it from Lila and some of it from John Calvin, not to mention John Ames. According to John Ames, “Calvin says every one of us has thousands of angels tending to us.” When we believe that, practicing kindness becomes easier. Lila’s view of things may surprise. Speaking of the Bible, which she spends considerable time reading and writing out passages to improve her reading and writing, she says, “There’s a lot in there I didn’t expect.” She understands poor as nothing but people trying to get by. This is not to negate the damage done to persons by poverty, neglect and abandonment. Lila’s story shows this damage a clear and present thing. Yet possibly the most memorable character is Doll, the woman who cared for the young Lila in the best way she knew how, a woman who found kindness and showed it when she could, a woman who was wise in guiding Lila as she grew.
This book is not about Iowa and not about the Nishnabotna River, a word that rolls off the tongue and stays in the memory (a familiar river to this reviewer who has written scenes taking place within view and along the banks of its wide flat meander). Rather, it is about faith and goodness. The narrative may surprise the reader with what it has to say on the subject of goodness and kindness as elements of faith and where they may be found. Those that practice this brand of righteousness have a profound effect on others and on themselves. Perhaps the practice of kindness acts as the best defense against the neglect leading to poverty and abandonment.
This story draws no boundaries between past and present, at least in a conventional sense, little definition between living the present and thinking of the past. The character Lila lives in both dimensions, as do most people, when we stop to think about it. Her story and the story of the old man who rescues her seems an amorphous entity as told here, without sections or chapters to assist or impede the reader in finding pathways to meaning. There are many paths and many different meanings, always some left to be discovered.
Mysteries of Lila’s life drive the reader to strive to understand how her life comes to be what it is. How does she come to marry John Ames? Who is she? How can her past life fit with her present one, lived in the Gilead community? Lila’s story, as created and told by Marilynne Robinson, causes a reader to ponder individual beliefs and actions, and it does so in a gentle, yet heart-stopping manner. What more might we ask of any story, the world it creates and the time we spend there?