'Lila' gives us the year’s sweetest literary love story

In 'Lila,' Pulitzer Prize-winner Marilynne Robinson takes us back to Iowa.

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 272 pp.

Marilynne Robinson returns to her fictional small town in Iowa to craft the year’s sweetest literary love story in Lila.

Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize for “Gilead,” in which a small-town preacher writes down the story of his life in a letter for the young son he won’t get to see grow up. She won the Orange Prize for “Home,” in which she took on the story of the prodigal godson. Now “Lila,” the third novel, which is told from the point of view of the preacher’s wife, was named a finalist for the National Book Award on Wednesday. (In this novel, Robinson doesn't answer the question of what comes next. Instead, "Lila" ends before John Ames begins writing the missive to their son that is "Gilead.")

Taken together, the trilogy considers Christianity more thoughtfully than any other modern American work.

For the wife of a minister, Lila doesn’t place much stock in theology.

She was raised as a field hand, traveling with Doll, the surrogate mother who stole her when she was an unwanted toddler, and a group of travelers proud to be beholden to no one. Doll and Lila wander the fields, living off gleanings like the biblical Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi – never staying too long in one place in case Lila’s family catches up with them.

Then the Great Depression hits and there’s nothing to pick and no one to pay them. Any echoes of the Joads are purely intentional – although Doll and Lila never could have afforded a car. Doll managed to get Lila one year of schooling, which the girl thrived on, along with pillowcases and other unheard of luxuries.

“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 spose they had to call it something.’”

When the grown-up Lila steps into the church in Gilead to get out of the rain, she has one possession: the knife Doll used to kill at least one man. While she’s been raised to scorn churches as entities only out for people’s money, Lila is captivated by the gentle old preacher. And the Rev. Ames, widowed for decades after the loss of his wife and infant son, is frankly stunned.

Lila dismisses the age difference between the two, although she’s very sure she’s not qualified to be a preacher’s wife.

“For a woman being old just means not being young, and all the youth had been worked out of her before it had really even set in.”

Their courtship unfolds slowly: She tends his garden, plants flowers on his wife’s gravestone, and steals his gray sweater to use as a pillow. He baptizes her, gets people in the town to give her odd jobs, and offers her old-fashioned courtesy, which frankly baffles her.

“To this very day, if the Reverend happened to meet her out on the street he took off his hat to her, even in the rain. He always helped her with her chair, which amounted to pulling out from the table a little, then pushing it in again after she sat down. Who in the world could need help with a chair?” Lila thinks.

Mostly, the two walk together, Lila pushing for answers to questions about the nature of salvation and the afterlife, dissatisfied with Ames’ explanations.

“It was about the meaning of existence, he said. All right. She knew a little bit about existence. That was pretty well the only thing she knew about, and she had learned the word from him. It was like the United States of America – they had to call it something.”

Lila, however, isn’t comforted by hymns or parables, or even good works. She gravitates toward the toughest books of the Bible: Job and Ezekiel, the ones talking about “a desolation and a reproach. She knew what those words meant without asking.”

She ignores Ames’ suggestion that she might want to try out Matthew.

“I don’t know. For a preacher you ain’t much at explaining things,” she tells him.

“ ‘You ask such interesting questions,’” Ames tells her on one of their walks.

‘And you don’t answer them.’ He nodded. 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.”

Lila thinks Ames’s wouldn’t want to marry her if he understood the life she’s led and she isn’t sure she can stay in one place for long anyway.

But she’s forced to concede Ames may understand her better than she thinks, especially after she spends a day down at the river and he’s convinced she’s left town.

“I want you to leave by daylight. I want you to have a train ticket in your hand that will take you right where you want to go, and I want you to take your ring and anything else I have given you … You’re my wife,” he said. “I want to take care of you, even if that means someday seeing you to the train.”

There are a few plot points that strain credulity, as when the madam in the house Lila is briefly employed allows her to work off her “debt” cleaning the stove and other backbreaking chores, instead of seeing clients.

On the other hand, while adultery was certainly the stock in trade, Lila can’t imagine the girls she worked with being damned for eternity. And she really isn’t impressed by the whole notion of baptism. If you have to be baptized to be saved, that would mean Doll was lost, and Lila would rather forgo heaven than the woman who raised her.

“If Doll was going to be lost forever, Lila wanted to be right there with her, holding to the skirt of her dress.”

“It must always be true that there are the stragglers, people somebody couldn’t bear to be without, no matter what they’d been up to in this life,” Lila thinks.

“Lila” doesn’t have quite the moral urgency of “Gilead,” or any character as fiery as John Ames’ grandfather.

But it’s a quiet meditation on the nature of salvation, one that casts itself firmly on the side of redemption.

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