‘Lila’ by Marilynne Robinson (2014) – 261 pages
No writer has been more successful at imparting her Christian values to the literary world than Marilynne Robinson. In her novels she has shown us the good side of Christianity, the side that helped set up the Underground Railroad which aided black slaves escaping into the north to freedom. Even her Christianity of today is a positive force for good, not the smarmy TV Christianity that sickens and corrupts.
When ‘Lila’ begins, the four year old girl Lila is locked out of her house by her parents on a cold night. Fortunately a woman named Doll saw what was happening and stole Lila away from her family. Doll has to travel by foot all over Missouri to find temporary jobs, and she takes Lila everywhere she goes. The only permanent possession they have is a big knife that Doll keeps for protection. Lila grows up loving her makeshift mother.
Most of the novel ‘Lila’ is an interior monologue by the grown-up Lila looking back on her early years. Her fortunes have drastically changed since her childhood as she is now living in Iowa, married to local minister John Ames, and expecting a child of her own. The novel explains how all these changes came about.
‘Lila’ is the third novel in Robinson’s Gilead series, the other two being ‘Gilead’ and ‘Home’. I found both of the first two books tremendously moving. ‘Lila’ did not have quite the impact on me of these first two novels.
For one thing, the story is told in a reverie, and sometimes events seem a little murky and not as vivid as they could be. Still there are sentences here that memorably evoke nature along the roads and rivers of Missouri.
“The river smelled like any river, fishy and mossy and shadowy, and the smell seemed stronger in the dark, with the chink and plosh of all the small life.”
Perhaps the weakest part of ‘Lila’ for me was the character Reverend John Ames. Too many times he seemed little more than a beatific nonentity. When Lila shows up at his church one day, he decides immediately that she will be his future wife despite their thirty-plus years’ difference in age. What his congregation thinks of this June/December romance is not discussed. Nearly all his time in the novel is taken up with quoting biblical passages, praying, and sermonizing. Take page 223 in ‘Lila’. This entire page is taken up with one of Reverend Ames’s sermons. I suppose if you delight in listening to sermons this will be wonderful, but for people who don’t it makes the novel drag. If you got rid of the sermonizing sludge, you would probably have a fine little 125 page novel here. The Reverend should have been given some controversial church issue to struggle with so he would have been a more interesting meaningful character.
But the center of ‘Lila’ is Lila herself. Despite or maybe because she has dealt with rough circumstances throughout her life, she has emerged a strong self-reliant person. Because of her, ‘Lila’ may be one of those novels I will have to think about for awhile before I fully recognize its worth.