Lila by Marilynne Robinson
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014, 272 pages)
Lila is the third “Gilead” novel from Marilynne Robinson. Her 2004 Pulitzer Prize winning Gilead was an epistolary novel written from the perspective of John Ames, a Congregationalist minister in Gilead, Iowa. Ames was widowed as a young man, and in his old age he has remarried and has a young son. The plot of the next novel, Home, is contemporaneous with the events of Gilead. In Home, the story centers on the family of Robert Boughton, Ames’ best friend. Now, in Lila, Robinson backtracks to tell the story of Lila, Ames’ wife. Lila has lived a drifter’s life, looking for work wherever it can be found and forming few personal ties. The events of Lila’s difficult and often lonely existence are recounted in a scattered fashion, drifting from childhood remembrances, to memories of life on the road, to what she thought would be her temporary stop in Gilead. The longer Lila stays in Gilead, the more strongly she feels tied to the old minister who seems to find her so interesting. She is used to keeping to herself and avoiding dependence on others, but as she put it, “You best keep to yourself, except you never can.”
Like all of Robinson’s novels, Lila is a meditation on the beauty of existence and the pain and confusion of suffering, all in the form of an eloquently written account of very common events and people in a Midwestern town. I think that John Ames might just be my favorite character in contemporary literature (however you want to define that). I would have a hard time identifying another literary character that I feel I know as well or for whom I have as much affection. The consistency of his perspective across the three novels is remarkable. In Lila, he feels like an old friend whose reactions and opinions can be guessed before he speaks. Lila is not John Ames’ book, at least not in the same way that Robinson’s earlier novel Gilead was. With Lila we get a perspective on Ames from the person who comes to know him better than anyone else. If Lila does know Ames better than anyone, it is a hard earned knowledge. She is used to being lonely, and she is distrustful of most people. Through Lila we realize that it is only by learning to know and be known by someone else we can find who we really are.