"Lila" by Marilynne Robinson

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Author Marilynne Robinson concludes her Gilead trilogy with the story of Lila, the plain-spoken onetime drifter and whorehouse worker who marries Reverend John Ames, a chief character in the two prior novels Gilead and Home. Echoes include the characters and themes of the two previous entries, of course, but the author also maintains the same reverent, natural tone that respects and understands all life, whether lived in a state of grace or outside of it.

And grace has everything to do with Lila the novel and Lila the character. The book is among other things a beginner’s catechism. Lila doesn’t know that much of what’s in the Bible, but she has read some things that make perfect sense to her, about rage and voices from on high, but also some other things that need quite a bit of explaining.

She travels with an itinerant group, a loose assemblage that seeks temporary work. She grows up in this hand-to-mouth fashion, having been saved from neglectful parents by a woman named Doll. Lila has drifted outside of society, working as she could, eventually finding herself employed in a whorehouse. However, her potential for grace is always there: she has an inquiring mind, is never as mean as the girls and women around her, has never stolen, nor harmed another. She finds herself in Gilead on a rainy afternoon, letting her clothes drip dry inside a church. She eventually engages Reverend Ames in conversation, and then as a spiritual consultant on certain philosophical questions. She asks him why things work out the way they do, and it’s a question that occupies them both, along with the author and the reader, for the remainder of the book.

Lila plunges into the consciousness of its heroine in a way that bounces around considerably in time, but this journey shows the author’s remarkable skill in using Lila’s consciousness as a way of exploring deep and difficult issues. This is a main purpose here: we accompany Lila in her beginner’s quest to understand her universe. Along the way we have the kindly, beautiful John, her mentor and student and lover, and his highly examined and literate relationship with God. It’s as unique a romance as you will encounter in literature, this marriage of John and Lila. It’s beautiful in itself, carefully paced, and expressed with all the grace and respect Ms. Robinson can summon, which is – all of it, I think. That also is one part of the point: I believe the author definitely wants to leave her readers with the very distinct impression that you can approach life’s vagaries, and the eternal questions, in a spiritual way, and you will be made to feel welcome.

The book in effect introduces the Gilead trilogy, although it is published last. Its events anticipate those of the other two books, and Lila’s new child and her husband and her beliefs lead us up to the beginning of the first book in the trilogy, Gilead.  The tone and consciousness, the effortless - and chapterless - flow forward and backward in time, the masterly yoking of her language to her purpose – Marilynne Robinson is, after all, the finest living American writer – all of these feature in this excellent piece. It somehow achieves a pastoral flavor (the book is dedicated to Iowa) amid all the philosophical grappling and exegesis, Depression subsistence and petty whorehouse meanness. It’s a tribute to our intrepid author’s skill with her subject. I unreservedly and unabashedly recommend all three books. Read them in order for the full reward.
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