Lila, homeless and alone after years of roaming the countryside, steps inside a small-town Iowa church-the only available shelter from the rain-and ignites a romance and a debate that will reshape her life. She becomes the wife of a minister and widower, John Ames, and begins a new existence while trying to make sense of the days of suffering that preceded her newfound security. Neglected as a toddler, Lila was rescued by Doll, a canny young drifter, and brought up by her in a hardscrabble childhood of itinerant work. Together they crafted a life on the run, living hand-to-mouth with nothing but their sisterly bond and a lucky knife to protect them. But despite bouts of petty violence and moments of desperation, their shared life is laced with moments of joy and love. When Lila arrives in Gilead, she struggles to harmonize the life of her makeshift family and their days of hardship with the gentle worldview of her husband which paradoxically judges those she loves. Revisiting the beloved characters and setting of Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead and Orange Prize-winning Home, Lila is a moving expression of the mysteries of existence.
Lila is beautifully written, with the same slow, contemplative prose I loved in Gilead and with an incredibly emotional impact. Even though I am not practicing any particular religion these days, the baptismal scenes were especially powerful. There were many other points where a lump formed in my throat or tears welled up, not due to sadness or joy per se, but just an overwhelming feeling. If you haven't read Gilead, that should be your first stop. And then don't miss Lila.
"Gilead" and "Lila" belong together. They are in one respect very different novels, yet they compliment each other beautifully. They show different aspects and approaches to life, love, marriage, faith and spirituality. And I’m so much more in love with John Ames from "Gilead" after I read "Lila" - and I can’t say how much I ached for Lila to find happiness and peace.
In "Gilead" we meet the dear old pastor John Ames. He have married the much younger woman, Lila - and they are an unequal match - how unequal will first be known when you read "Lila". They have a little son. And he writes a long letter to him about his life and faith - knowing he will soon die. He can’t think a sentence without mingling it with thoughts from the Bible or Calvin.
In [Lila] we see the situation from her point of view. She is poorly educated, with a childhood of abuse and neglect. The only one who takes care of her is the stout, bitter and - on occasion - violent woman Doll. The two of them live a life as drifters and vagrants. Lila’s story is told in flashbacks mingled with events of her present life and marriage with John Ames. Her approach to faith is stumbling and doubting without the trained theological mind of her husband. It is very profound writing when she connects with obscure passages in Ezekiel and Jeremiah - letting them comment on her life and experience.
Lila can’t grasp and don’t know what she should do with the unconditional love that John Ames bestow on her. She is lonesome, scared and have crept into her self. She pushes people away, afraid of intimacy - she’s a needy lover, yet also a reluctant lover. Can she ever love again? Will she find a home, an anchor?
The story reminded me of the movie "Tender Mercies" with Robert Duvall. Duvall being Lila….There’s a lot of tender mercies in "Lila".
“It felt very good to have him walking beside her. Good like rest and quiet, like something you could live without but you needed anyway. That you had to learn how to miss, and then you'd never stop missing it.”
Five big stars. Also to narrator Maggie Hoffman - she IS Lila.
Lila’s early life was one of poverty, but she was happy sharing it with Doll, whom we shall call her unlikely guardian, for lack of a better description. Doll is devoted to Lila, showering her with affection she was unused to, and Lila, likewise, is devoted to Doll. In spite of what she was lacking in the way of creature comforts, Lila was happy with the routine and simplicity necessitated by their lifestyle and its daily requirements. She comes to realize that with Doll, she managed to survive when she otherwise might not have.
When, after many years, she finds herself alone, she drifts and has many unexpected negative and positive experiences. Regardless of what fate sends her way, Lila somehow always dusts herself off and muddles on finding joy in the simplest of things like a field of violets. She is lonely, but also appreciates her aloneness. She is subject to moods, but most often is kind rather than vengeful. She is ridiculed but she forgives her ridiculers, trying always to understand their motives on some level.
After years of wandering, Lila finds happiness and although this is written after Gilead, it feels as if it could also have been the prequel to it, since it is essentially Lila’s back story, her history. Her life with the Reverend John Ames is explored more fully until it returns to the place where it began, in Gilead, when she met and later married him, a man more than twice her age, at the time.
As Lila develops an interest in religion, she becomes more and more aware of the world around her and more engaged in it, involving herself with people and the church as she had never done before. She still prefers to be a solitary person, but she is more invested with living her life, not just existing within its walls. The book takes us up to the birth of her son, the son that Reverend Ames writes to in a journal in “Gilead”, so he will know him, because the Reverend knows that his advanced age will make it highly unlikely that he will be around to share his life for any great length of time. So in Gilead, the journal of stories was a legacy for the child, and in this book, I had the feeling Lila was “confessing” to him.
There is a sweet and tender innocence with which this story is written, and it will move even the hardest person to think about life, its virtues and its evils. Although it has been described as a Christian book, steeped with passages and messages from the Bible, and it is probably a tale about a person being drawn into religion, it is simply not offensive to someone who is not Christian. The message of kindness and forgiveness transcends differences, and the book should be a welcome read for people of all persuasions. Although spirituality invades her books in the series, her approach is so tender and encompassing that all readers will want to treat each page with reverence, regardless of religious affiliation. Her message transcends differences.
Having read and enjoyed, Robinson’s “Gilead”, several years ago, I had to go back and rediscover the book again to find the connections that became obvious once I did review it. In Lila, the author examines Lila’s life in the same deep way she had examined John’s in “Gilead”. Past and present thoughts often mingle in Lila’s mind, sometimes causing confusion, but this soon resolves itself. Also the book is written in one long stream of thoughts, and sometimes it is disconcerting because there is a constant, unrelenting storm of ideas. It is hard to know when it is appropriate to come up for air, however, since this is a book to be savored, read it slowly, devour and ponder its message, and take a breather when the moment simply feels right.
When the dust bowl occurs and work is hard to find for the group, the woman who loved her had to abandon her on the steps of a church.
It is here that she meets the much older pastor who is drawn to her, at first to help her, and then, to love her.
Most of the book centers on their relationship both before and after they are married. Though Lila no longer has the necessity of searching for love, for shelter, for food, she is consumed with the hard life she once had. Struggling to accept unconditional love and non judgement, often Lila is tempted to run.
This is one of the top reads for 2015. Words are difficult to describe the beauty of the writing.
I was excited to receive Marilynne Robinson’s Lila to review because it is published by Virago, one of my favourite publishers. Robinson is also the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, has won the Orange Prize and been nominated twice for the International Man Booker Prize. Whilst I haven’t read her earlier books, I understand that Lila features the same setting and characters as Gilead and Home.
If you are looking for a fast-paced thriller or steamy romance, this is not the book for you. Lila is very much a book of the interior and designed to make you think…a lot.
The character of Lila is a homeless itinerant who somehow makes her way into the town of Gilead, a small town in Iowa. An unlikely romance blossoms between Lila and the local elderly and widowed minister. What does she see in him? And what on earth can he see in her?
This is a deeply contemplative, spiritual book. It is about what we believe and how we arrive at those beliefs. Yes, it does refer to the Bible a bit, but it’s not just about religion. I think Robinson is exploring really important ideas here about how we arrive at judgements about each other and our place in the world.
Robinson is renowned for dealing with the big questions of life: why we are put on this earth; why some struggle and some have it so easy; the miracle of life; the mystery of death; the challenge of language to articulate our personal experience. It’s all here. But you'll have to work at it. As Malcolm Fraser famously once quoted, “Life wasn’t meant to be easy.”
I read Lila first; I wasn't really sure I wanted to read Gilead, but I was intrigued by premise of Lila -- the story of a child, connected to a Depression-era itinerant migrant-worker group, who slowly, joyfully and painfully grows into young womanhood, but more importantly comes to realize the actuality of her own existence.
There was a long time when Lila didn't know that words had letters, or that there were other names for seasons than planting and haying. Walk south ahead of the weather, walk north in time for the crops. They lived in the United States of America. She brought that home from school. Doll said, "Well, I s'pose they had to call it something."
As a small child, Lila had been snatched from an abusive home by Doll, their sometime boarder. The two gradually made their way into small wandering tribe led by a man named Doane. The group survived by migrant labor until the demand totally dried up during the Depression.
Lila heard about the Crash years after it happened, and she had no idea what it was even after she knew what to call it. But it did seem like they gave it the right name. I was like one of those storms you might even sleep through, and then when you wake up in the morning everything's ruined, or gone.
The novel begins as Lila, to escape from a storm, wanders into a church in Gilead, Iowa, led by the aging Reverend John Ames. As their relationship grows, Lila ponders the events of her childhood and adolescence, and the reader follows on her path of growing awareness of the life around her and inside her.
While Lila is narrated in third person selective omniscient mode, Gilead has a first person narrator, John Ames. As he has learned that his heart condition will soon be fatal, he is writing a letter to his young son apologizing for the difficulties he and his mother will have to face alone, advising him on life choices and telling him the stories of his family and the townspeople among whom he has lived his life.
Although both novels are imbued with a strong Christian ethos, Lila seems to draw from the simplicity of early believers, while Amos in Gilead teases out the philosophical complexities of faith and practice within the church. Perhaps, as I long ago left the practice of Christianity, I found Lila more appealing than [Gilead]. Perhaps it's because I prefer poetry to philosophy. But the wonder of grace illumines both of Robinson's tales, and they complement each other.
Lila: But thinking about her life was another thing. Lying there in that room in that house in that quiet town she could choose what her life had been. The others were there. The world was there, evening and morning. No matter what anybody thought, no matter if she only tagged after them because they let her. That sweet nowhere. If the world had a soul, that was it. All of them wandering through it, never knowing anything different, or wanting anything more.
Well, that wasn't true either.
Gilead: In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as the criticisms they are meant to answer. I think the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it, in fact, because there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things. We participate in Being without remainder. No breath, no thoughts, no wart or whisker, is not as sunk in Being as it could be. An yet no one can say Being is.
In Lila, Marilynne Robinson concludes her sparkling Gilead Trilogy (which also includes the novels Gilead and Home) by focusing on the backstory of the minister’s young wife, who was often seen in the wings of those earlier dramas. At one level, reading this book was like visiting dear old friends you have not seen for a while and getting to know them all a little better. However, in this installment, Robinson also transports the reader well beyond the comfortable boundaries of Gilead into a wider, sadder, and more unseemly world that is crucial to understanding how Lila’s mindset develops and why she appears to be so resistant to trusting people or even wanting to be rescued from the hard and lonely life she has had to lead. Although not all of this part of the story was convincing (e.g., Lila’s time “in service” while living in St. Louis), it nevertheless contributes to the creation of a memorable character study.
As always, the author’s prose borders on being brilliant: it is subtle, confident, insightful, and deeply moving. I have to confess to being a huge fan of Robinson’s work and I have always taken great pleasure in settling into the slower reading tempo that it takes to truly savor her fiction. That said, though, I enjoyed this last book in the series a bit less than I did the two that preceded it, perhaps because of the somewhat disjointed narrative structure that bounced between Lila’s past and her present. That is a very small quibble, however, as this is a novel that I can definitely recommend without hesitation.
Set in the small Iowa town, and revisiting the familiar characters of Gilead and Home before it, Lila is a moving conclusion to Robinson’s trilogy.
Abandoned as a toddler, Lila is rescued by Doll, a wily drifter – and the two share a hardscrabble existence made bearable by mutual affection. Illiterate and on the run, they life hand-to-mouth, with nothing to their names but a rough blade for protection. When Lila arrives in Gilead, she steps into the town’s small church, seeking shelter from the weather. A romance is ignited between her and Reverend John Ames, which will completely reshape both of their lives. As the two begin a new existence, Lila struggles to reconcile the hardships of her past life with the gentle Christian life she now shares with her husband.
I think both the strength, and perhaps the weakness, of Lila, is the absolute oddity of the marriage between Lila and Ames. Robinson manages the mystery of their existence expertly, but I found the pairing so odd that it almost defied believability.
While I personally did not care for Gilead, certainly Jack Boughton and Lila Ames are characters I won’t soon forget. Both Lila and the Gilead trilogy is recommended.
Ames is maybe the toughest kind of character to create: honest, ethical, questing for spiritual understanding, and nonetheless interesting. A widower, he falls for Lila, and has a patience with her that she's never experienced before. She begins to tend his garden in secret, and then openly. Having lived her life on the road and in distressed circumstances, she is bright but uneducated, and most social graces are unknown to her. Yet he loves what she brings to his life, just as she loves the stability and honesty he brings to hers. “She could see it surprised him, too, sometimes. He told her once when there was a storm a bird had flown into the house. He’d never seen one like it. The wind must have carried it in from some far-off place. He opened all the doors and windows, but it was so desperate to escape that for a while it couldn’t find a way out. 'It left a blessing in the house,' he said. 'The wildness of it. Bringing the wind inside'.”
They know that, given his age, their time together is likely limited. They also know it will not be easy for her to get along in a close community after her previous wandering life. But she is thirsty for knowledge, and even "steals" a Bible to better understand what the Reverend is talking about. She is brave, and her lack of the usual background allows her to bring a perspective that sometimes puts the Reverend back on his heels and at the same time opens him up. “She said, 'I don’t know why I come here. That’s a fact.' He shrugged. 'Since you are here, maybe you could tell me a little about yourself?' She shook her head. 'I don’t talk about that. I just been wondering lately why things happen the way they do.' 'Oh!' he said. 'Then I’m glad you have some time to spare. I’ve been wondering about that more or less my whole life.'” She is deeply concerned about the "unsaved" people she has known who had goodness but were forced into difficult choices by their poverty. Can it be right that they'll be excluded from heaven, having never known a church?
This book is beautifully written. I don't know how she does it; no one else writes like this. The depictions of poverty are brutal and nightmarish; the longing for better circumstances and salvation is palpable and believable. Lila is an unforgettable character, someone who refuses to succumb to what should crush her, and who unexpectedly finds love and learning. This is a perfect complement to Gilead. Five stars.
I love Robinson's writing. Her word choices and her sentence construction are, at times, like poetry. It is also clear that she deeply cares for her characters. During her reading last weekend, she was asked why many of her characters are wanderers, and she said that she believes that when you take people out of their typical setting, that is when you get to their essence. Although Lila has had a hard life, Robinson never stoops to stereotypes to characterize her. Instead, we get her essence, the good and the bad, the confused and the certain, the scared and the brave. Her interactions with John Ames allow her to wrestle with difficult issues surrounding faith and religion, and here we get the benefit of Robinson's thoughtful consideration of these issues. I've loved all of Robinson's books, but this may be my favorite. It is one that I'm glad to have on my shelf so that I can revisit it.
John Ames is just about one of my favorite characters in literature. He represents what Christianity is all about--love, forgiveness, and grace. He knows the depths of love and forgiveness without judgment and has the ability to never take himself too seriously in spite of being a very serious preacher. There are moments in the interaction between Ames and Lila that are pure tenderness.
My problem with the book is the stream of consciousness technique of telling Lila's story before Ames. Rambling and at times difficult to follow, it is her thoughts, but for the reader, often hard to follow. The timeline of the book is not straight chronological and wanders between the present and Lila's thoughts of the past. Of course, those thoughts explain how Lila became who she is, but sometimes just hard to follow. Still this is a book to treasure. It didn't affect me quite as much as "Gilead" but it's a still an amazing book.
The novel traces the life of the indigent Lila from about the age of five in 1920 through her marriage to the elderly Reverend Ames and the birth of their son 30 years later. As she prepares for the child’s arrival, her thoughts tell us of her distant past as an itinerant farm worker during the great dust storms of the Depression and her subsequent years in a St. Louis brothel, but returning always to the woman, called Doll, who raised her. The opening of the novel is brutal in its realistic depiction through Lila’s memory of herself as a girl shivering outside a backwoods cabin at night. Will it do her more harm or good if she howls to be let back in? “She couldn’t holler anymore and they didn’t hear her anyway, or they might and that would make things worse. Somebody had shouted, Shut that thing up or I’ll do it!” Treated worse than a stray dog, the girl doesn’t know who her family is, or even her own name. The same night she is rescued and carried off by Doll, a poor drifter who becomes like a mother to the girl, and names her Lila.
Lila is a novel of no small questions. “I just been wondering lately why things happen the way they do,” Lila observes to Reverend Ames, when, as a newcomer to Gilead she stops by the widower’s house unannounced, to his alternating delight and embarrassment. He doesn’t handle her question except to offer the tautological reply that life is a “very deep mystery, and that finally the grace of God is all that can resolve it. And the grace of God is also a very deep mystery.” These awkward, searching conversations between them continue, composing a unique courtship during which they discuss her somewhat-accidental theological questions and she spontaneously suggests they get married. She is so uncomfortable with herself, consumed with a loneliness she both reveres and regrets, that she can barely stand to look other people in the eye. But in the Reverend she sees a similar aloneness and a kindness she cannot quite comprehend. The book is punctuated by their earnest dialogues, in which they fumble toward better understanding themselves, each other, and how they feel about hoary doctrinal concepts like salvation and damnation. Quotes from the Bible, primarily the prophet Ezekiel, are interspersed with references to Calvin--heady stuff.
The book is dialectical in this way, these halting conversations akin to hinges, each one representing a moment when Lila opens just a bit in a new direction. Even when she’s alone, she carries on devising questions for the man she’ll always call “the Reverend,” like “What do you ever tell people in a sermon except that things that happen mean something?” Her candor and perseverance help move him away from the rote complacency he’s allowed to take root during decades of pastoral work.
To see what she can remember from her brief time in school, Lila buys a pencil and writing tablet and begins copying from the Bible she stole from Reverend Ames’s church. One verse from Ezekiel catches her eye:
"In the day thou wast born thy navel was not cut, neither wast thou washed in water to cleanse thee ... No eye pitied thee."
She begins to see her infant and child self as others would have seen her, taking up the tools of language and metaphor to re-imagine her own story, developing compassion for herself. From copying and thinking about Bible verses and talking with the Reverend, she finds she is thinking about “existence” in place of “why things happen the way they do.” When Lila Ames finishes her reading and copying out of Ezekiel, she moves on to Job, and finds its language not so off-putting, its themes of displacement and loss not unfamiliar. “She never expected to find so many things she already knew about written down in a book,” Robinson writes. Lila is not entirely sure what to make of the change that’s come over her, but she finds she may be willing to leave behind past loneliness and suffering, opening herself to love’s simple grace and kindness:
"She kept thinking, What happens when somebody isn’t herself anymore? I seem to be getting used to things I never even knew about just a few months ago. ... Maybe it’ll be something the old man liked about me that will be gone sometime, and I won’t even know what it was. She found herself thinking she might stay around anyway. She thought she’d always like the feel of him, she’d probably always like to creep into bed beside him. He didn’t seem to mind it."
In spite of the intensity of the story and its serious message, or perhaps because of it, I was not as impressed with this further tale of the residents of Gilead as the earlier novels. Robinson is effective in depicting the simple nature of Lila, but she does not convince me that such a simple person could maintain her personality while delving into the theological issues that she raises. On the other hand, Reverend Ames seems incapable of providing answers with his responses frustratingly brief and platitudinous. They were not convincing for this reader, but Lila seemed not to mind. There are also unusual details that do not seem to fit with the story. For example, there is a knife that is extremely important to Lila from her early difficult years, yet unlike Chekhov's gun, nothing of import comes of the knife later in the story. Robinson does write with a beautiful prose style, but the content of this book made its average length seem too long for the story that it contained.
Again, I enjoyed reading the same story from a different perspective. Having Lila's perspective on her marriage deepens the account previously given by John Ames, and reminds us of how we each construct our own story and history.
Gilead remains my favorite of the three books, although I am glad that I read all three. But how can you top a one-eyed abolitionist grandfather who is always stealing from people?
In Lila, we get to know more of Lila, the enigmatic, quiet figure from the periphery of Gilead. The beginning of the book introduces us to the young child Lila, freezing out on a door stoop after someone got tired of her crying. A poor woman named Doll came to her rescue, and takes the severely neglected and abused Lila and runs away.
There is a heartbreaking scene as Doll takes Lila to another house, where the woman there gently cleans up the sick and exhausted Lila. It made me cry and that was just page seven.
Lila has had a hard life and one day while walking through Gilead, she finds herself exhausted and sees a little abandoned house. She stays there for weeks, living on fish and dandelion greens. She wanders into town and ends up at Reverend John Ames' church during services.
After church, she stops by John Ames' home and he invites her in. Watching their relationship blossom, the tender way he cares for Lila and the way she comes to care for him is beautiful, like watching a flower slowly blossom and bloom. Lila works on instinct, and Reverend Ames on intellect, yet they manage to find a way to each other.
The writing is gorgeous, the kind that makes want to re-read passages over again to get a full appreciation of Robinson's poetry and skill, like this one:
So when she was done at Mrs. Graham's house she took the bag of clothes and walked up to the cemetery. There was the grave of the John Ames who died as a boy, with a sister Martha on one side and a sister Margaret on the other. She had never really thought about the way the dead would gather at the edge of a town, all their names spelled out so you'd know whose they were for as long as that family lived in that place. And there was the Reverend John Ames, who would have been the preacher's father, with his wife beside him. It must be strange to know your whole life where you will be buried. To see these stones with your own name on them. Someday the old man would lie down beside his wife. And there she would be, after so many years, waiting in sunlight, all covered in roses.
Lila is a work of art, a quiet book that will pull at your heartstrings and maybe look at people in a different way. It won many awards last year, including The National Book Critics Circle Award, and made many publications Top Ten Lists. It is a book to contemplate and savor. I give it my highest recommendation.
The language is beautiful. The characters are rich and lovely and I just . . . what do you say about Ms. Robinson? If you've read and loved the other two in this Gilead sort-of-series then you know what to expect and I can't imagine you being disappointed. If you've read and disliked / felt indifferent about them, then there's nothing here that's going to redeem her for you. If you've never read Robinson, I'd suggest giving Gilead a shot first.
Another reviewer asked, "Have you ever read a book so good it hurt?" and I think that's as good a way as any to describe my experience reading this book. I live in the same Iowa town that Robinson lives in and I sincerely hope I never run into her because I'm pretty sure I'd either start weeping or yelling at her, such is the deepness of the emotions her works get out of me.
Reading about her young life, her life as a traveler, going wherever Doll, the woman who took her, needed to go in order to find work. Loved the character of Doll, the wise old woman who had such a tough life yet took a little girl in order to save and protect her. Such hard lives, especially during the depression when all work literally dried up, leaving little recourse for, those who lived on the road, going from place to place. Eventually Lila would find her way alone to Gilead, with a past she didn't want to speak of, but thought of often. She would find comfort sitting in the church and would find her way to the scriptures, looking for a reason for her own existence.
Loved this story, the writing and descriptions are just beautiful and serve to balance the sometimes ugliness of Lila's journey. I read Gilead a while ago and now want to re-read as I feel after reading this novel I will have a different perspective.