Lila: A Novel
by marilynne robinson
farrar, straus and giroux, 272 pages, $26

Of Pieter Bruegel’s sixteenth-century de­­pic­­tion of Icarus crashing into the sea, W. H. Auden observes “how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster.” Bruegel’s painting shows a tragedy affecting no one but the boy with melted wings. The sun shines on as before; a ploughman looks down at his labor; a passing ship continues on its course, leaving Icarus to his fate. The “human position” of suffering, for Auden, is “in a corner, some untidy spot,” where anyone who has half a say in the matter will keep it out of sight and out of mind.

How marvelously more than ­human, then, is the Christian approach to suffering. Those who mourn and despair, who hunger and fail and go without, are not only pulled in from the margins and made equal; they are exalted. A kindness to the least of these—and not just widows and orphans either, but also sinners and lepers—is to be counted as a kindness to God, until the last are made first.

Rarely has this paradox worn such a human face as it does in Lila, Marilynne Robinson’s fourth novel and the last in her trilogy about the fictional Midwestern town of Gilead. Readers of the first two books in the series, Gilead (2004) and Home (2008), will be familiar with the setting—rural Iowa in the late 1950s—and the major players, John Ames and Robert Boughton, Protestant ministers and lifelong friends. Ames is a Congregationalist and Boughton a Presbyterian. They, like Robinson herself, have a soft spot for John Calvin, and both are prone to quoting from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Both Ames and Boughton are in their seventies and ailing. Neither, Robinson suggests, will live long enough to see the transformations brought about by the civil-rights movement and 1960s counterculture. On the surface, Ames has been dealt the tougher lot in life. After losing his wife and their infant daughter in childbirth, he resigns himself to decades of loneliness, while Boughton and his wife raise a healthy brood of eight. But then, in his old age, as unexpectedly as Abraham, Ames falls in love, marries, and becomes a father again. Lila tells the story of his eponymous and improbable bride.

Unchurched and unhoused, Lila is a stranger who comes from goodness knows where, just passing through on her way to Sioux City when she decides to settle into an abandoned shack just outside Gilead. One Sunday, while picking up provisions, she wanders into Ames’s church to get out of the rain. What Lila finds there, although it will take her years to understand it fully, is both a spiritual and a physical home. In the solemn, slightly sad minister, she senses a kindred soul: “He looked as if he’d had his share of loneliness, and that was all right. It was one thing she understood about him.” Fumblingly, Ames and Lila strike up a courtship that seems to surprise the two of them only slightly less than it does his congregation, who nevertheless sweetly endeavor to keep the newlyweds—and, after a time, new parents—in meatloaves and casseroles.

But Lila is not primarily a story about love, or at least not romantic love. As important as gaining a companion is for Lila, she gets something even more crucial from Ames and his sermons. She came into the church because it was raining, but once there, she finds it fascinating to “hear the old man talk about being born and dying and the rest of it, things most folks are pretty quiet about.”

Lila is inspired to pick up a Bible. When it falls open to Ezekiel, she is astonished to find herself in its pages. Neglected as a child, Lila was taken from an unsafe home at age four or five (the novel opens with her rescue) by a poor but kindhearted woman named Doll, who strives to give Lila more schooling and a better chance at life than she ever had herself.

Robinson’s depictions of Doll and Lila’s hardscrabble years as migrant laborers during the Great Depression are some of the weaker passages in the novel. With The Grapes of Wrath always looming over such moments, it’s hard to imagine how it could have been otherwise. But her portrayal of the legacy of shame and distrust that abuse, neglect, and other kinds of trauma can leave is unparalleled. In Ezekiel 16, Lila stumbles upon an allegory of Israel as an abandoned infant, saved from death by a compassionate God:

In the day thou wast born thy navel was not cut, neither wast thou washed in water to cleanse thee; thou wast not salted at all, nor swaddled at all. No eye pitied thee. . . . And when I passed by thee weltering in thy blood, I said unto thee, “Though thou art in thy blood, live; yea, I said unto thee, Though thou art in thy blood, live.”

The strangeness of the passage intrigues Lila: “first time I ever heard of salting a baby.” But even more novel is the thought that she and Doll—“Ugly old Doll. Who had said to her, Live. Not once, but every time she washed and mended for her, mothered her as if she were a child someone could want”—might actually matter, in the scheme of things. Growing up, she recalls, “it seemed to Lila that they were nothing at all, the two of them, but here they were, right here in the Bible.”

The words matter and meaning come up again and again in the story of Lila’s younger years. Doll and Lila often feel deprived of volition and value and are faced with a tenuous existence. It doesn’t appear to matter what they want, or even whether they will survive until the next day. But in Ames’s church, ­everything matters:

She had a habit now of putting questions to him in her mind. What do you ever tell people in a sermon except that things that happen mean something? Some man dies somewhere a long time ago and that means something. People eat a bit of bread and that means something.

And slowly, as she builds a life in Gilead, Lila begins to see that she matters too. Between conversations with her husband and her own painstaking attempts to copy out and parse passages from the Bible, she finds comfort in a God who “looks after the strays. Especially the strays.”

Language gives Lila a way to grasp complicated realities: “It had begun to seem to her that if she had more words she might understand things better.” And the language of Christianity in particular allows her to make sense of meanness, injustice, and indifference, and to respond to a life filled with all three not in kind, but with love. She places flowers on the graves of Ames’s first wife and daughter. She gives her winter coat to a boy whom she discovers living in her old shack. He has run away from home after striking his abusive father with a piece of firewood, possibly killing the man, and Lila understands just how ashamed the boy must feel as he looks “at his hands, almost wishing he could be rid of them. Rid of himself. She’d felt that way, too, plenty of times.”

By this point, she has worked out the reason for that shame—hers as well as the boy’s—and it goes all the way back to the days when each was a near-orphan, as defenseless as a newborn babe weltering in its blood, and “the blood is just the shame of having no one who takes any care of you. Why should that be shame? A child is just a child. It can’t help what happens to it, or doesn’t happen.” Later, Lila weeps, wishing she had blessed the boy on the spot, to do “right by him, filthy thing that he was, all trembling at the thought of what he was.”

Robinson finds a way to sacralize suffering without glorifying it, and to move past it without ignoring it. Citing Calvin, perhaps with his own decades of widowhood in mind, Ames tells Lila that the purpose of adversity may be to allow us “to really recognize grace when it comes.” Realizing what this might leave God culpable for, he adds quickly, “I don’t know quite what to think about that.” Robinson, too, is wise enough to acknowledge that not all suffering leads to grace, at least not in this lifetime, and that even for the lucky ones it can leave a lasting scar.

After years of being on her own, Lila has difficulty at first trying to assimilate into a family and a community. Watching her silent husband in the early days of their marriage, “she knew he was thinking and praying about how to make her feel at home. She had never been at home in all the years of her life. She wouldn’t know how to begin.” Once, she snaps at him angrily, because at that point “she still thought sometimes, Why should he care? What is it to him? That was loneliness. When you’re scalded, touch hurts, it makes no difference if it’s kindly meant.” Such passages in the novel are not, as some earlier reviewers have suggested, meant to convey the ultimate futility of attempts at communication or union. They instead show Robinson respecting the weight of suffering and sin on a human soul, and the sheer amount of patience, love, and grace that are needed to lift it: “There was no way to abandon guilt, no decent way to disown it. All the tangles and knots of bitterness and desperation and fear had to be pitied. No, better, grace had to fall over them.”

One way to view the whole of Robinson’s trilogy is as an extended meditation on what it means to honor not only thy mother and father, but also thy child. Each book ends on a note of expectancy as to how a child will fare in the world: Robert Ames, son of John and Lila, in Gilead and Lila; Robert Boughton, grandson and namesake of Robert Boughton, in Home. Robbie’s birth gives Lila the chance to set old wrongs right—to do for her son what was not done for her, and to explain to him all the things she wishes she had been told. Above all, for Robinson, the love between parents and children offers a chance for each to glimpse and experience the love that God has for us. “[Your mother] has watched every moment of your life, almost, and she loves you as God does, to the marrow of your bones,” Ames writes to Robbie in Gilead. “You see how it is godlike to love the being of someone. Your existence is a delight to us.”

In devoting nearly a thousand pages to overlapping events involving only a handful of characters in a small town, Robinson has worked to give readers another kind of godlike perspective. Seeing the same scene through two different sets of eyes—as will happen several times if you read all three novels—won’t leave you feeling omniscient, but it will give you as good a sense as can be found anywhere in contemporary literature of the limitless depth of joys and pains and dreams and fears that make up every human life. Because we can never know the complexities of another’s existence, according to Robinson, we must tread carefully. The maxim “To know all is to forgive all” is reversed in Home: “You must forgive in order to understand. Until you forgive, you defend yourself against the possibility of understanding.” At the end of the trilogy, there is indeed a balm to be found in Gilead, one that can make the wounded whole and heal the sin-sick soul. In Robinson’s quietly wise fiction, the meanest sinners are revealed to be themselves the most afflicted. “If she ever took to praying,” we learn of Lila, “she would call down calm on every one of them, on the worst and the bitterest ones first of all.” 

Cassandra Nelson is an associate editor at Oxford University Press.