Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Lila Cover

Third in a trilogy of novels set in Gilead, Iowa, Lila, by Marilynne Robinson, is another National Book Award finalist. The young title character finds unconditional acceptance and the satisfaction of love and belonging in the home of one of the town’s ministers. A quiet book, it walks the reader through and around a small Midwestern town, in and out of churches, taking account of weather and the seasons. It is a story of simple lives, of the value of loyalty and of the common struggle for companionship and understanding in life.

With few if any of the comforts that money can buy, the characters rely on one another as shields from the elements of the earth, and from the more destructive elements of human nature, as they face the passing of time and the ignorance of purpose that follows them (and most of us) through life.

Persistence is a theme of the book. Some of the characters persist in their roles as runaways and drifters. John Ames persists in purity of faith and simplicity of vocation. Lila, his wife, persists in trying to learn about life and in trying to accept the affection of an unlikely older man as a partner.

Lila ponders the nature of roots and uprootedness, of family, of friendship and of charity. The pace of the book is slow and steady and masterfully managed. There is a weaving in and out of memory and present action. Ideas, faith, hopelessness, unfocused ambition, deceit, evil, passion, compassion all are present, but none of these overwhelm the well-told and balanced story.

Huckleberry Finn is a literary ancestor of Lila. One wonders if Marilynne Robinson reads The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with her graduate writing students. Certainly she has internalized it, with its American imagining of rivers and runaways on the ragged edge of society.

Marilynne Robinson

lines from Lila

She liked to hear people tell stories. The saddest ones were the best. She wondered if that meant anything at all. Of course when people talked about themselves that way, they were usually trying to get you to talk about yourself in the same way.  p. 30

Clean and acceptable. It would be something to know what that felt like, even for an hour or two. p. 67

A letter makes ordinary things seem important. p. 73

When he finally took to stealing, it was a big dog that caught him at it. So he went to jail with his pant leg slip open to make for the bandage and the swelling… p. 111

The quiet of the world was terrible to her, like mockery.  She had hoped to put an end to these thoughts but they returned to her, and she returned to them. p. 112

(Lila’s mind wanders when she reads. Mine does too. She learns by copying, by writing. So do I.)

She copied those verses ten times.  p. 125

Doll was after her with a wet rag all the time so she wouldn’t slip away into that tribe, the ones who never touched a comb to their hair and who always had shadows of grime on their necks and wore unmended clothes till they were falling off them. They probably were her tribe, and that was why Doll kept such a close eye on her and never even told her where she came from. p. 147

A grudge can pass from one person to the next just because it hasn’t burned itself out yet. So you don’t want to stand too close to it.

I keep trying to read the Bible, but my mind goes wandering off. You wouldn’t want to know where. The things I find myself thinking about with the Bible right there in my lap. p. 183

Sleep is mercy. You can feel it coming on, like being swept up in something. She could see the light in the room with her eyes closed, and she could smell the snow on the air drifting in. You had to trust sleep when it came or it would just leave you there, waiting. p. 238

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