“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” –C.S. Lewis
I kept thinking of this quote by C. S. Lewis as I read Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel, Lila. The title character has hardly had any opportunities in her life to love, and the idea of it terrifies her. She cannot figure out how to receive love from the man who becomes her husband and she cannot figure out how to receive it from God. She’s intrigued by both forms of love, and once in a while she lets those loves in, but she holds them loosely, prepared to drop them and move on at any minute.
As a child, Lila knew love only through the woman named Doll who snatched her from her neglectful family’s porch when she was just a toddler and carried her along through all her wanderings in 1920s America. Doll joins up with a group of other drifters, and they all form a sort of family, but Lila’s primary source and object of love remains Doll. When Lila arrives in the town of Gilead, Iowa, Doll is gone from her life, and she is totally alone. She seems to prefer it that way.
Yet for reason she herself doesn’t understand, Lila is drawn to a church and to that church’s preacher, John Ames, who many readers will already know as the narrator of Gilead. Their conversations baffle and fascinate them both—as does their decision to get married. Lila, or at least part of Lila, almost immediately regrets their decision:
She thought, I could tell him I don’t want to be no preacher’s wife. It’s only the truth. I don’t want to live in some town where people know about me and think I’m like an orphan left on the church steps, waiting for somebody to show some kindness, so they taken me in. I don’t want to marry some silvery old man everybody thinks is God. I got St. Louis behind me, and tansy tea, and pretending I’m pretty. Wearing high-heel shoes. Wasn’t no good at that life, but I did try. I got shame like a habit, the only thing I feel except when I’m alone.
Ames never presses Lila. He’s quietly, consistently present to her, but he doesn’t urge her to marry him; he merely makes it clear that he’d like it. And something inside Lila—the part of her that stole his sweater so she could have something that was his—knows she’d like it too. She just doesn’t seem sure that she’s able to accept that love. It’s not just a matter of being embarrassed at her background, although that’s part of it. The real reason for her reticence is harder to pin down, and a lot of the book involves Lila’s effort to understand herself. She looks back over her past and mulls over her present and tries to decide who she will be.
No matter what Lila says and does, John Ames remains constant in his care and concern and love for her. It’s clear that Ames doesn’t just love her as a pastor loves a parishioner; he genuinely enjoys her and the many ways she surprises him. He does sometimes want to pastor her. She notices how eager he is to guide her through the biblical book of Ezekiel, which she decided to read entirely on her own. In some respects, I think their quiet, sometimes reticent love is meant to echo the kind of love God has for humanity. It’s the kind of love that doesn’t cease, even when we back away. Yet Ames doesn’t quite understand Lila; he doesn’t know how unsettled she remains even after their marriage and her pregnancy. Love never stops being scary for her. (Maybe God’s love also never stops being scary.)
The book is written in the third person, but it’s Lila’s mind we’re inside. Those who have read Robinson’s other novels, with their long, complex sentences and sophisticated vocabulary, will find a different voice in Lila. Her sentences are short, her words simple. But that doesn’t mean her thoughts aren’t deep. She wonders over the Bible, considers the nature of love, worries over her the meaning of suffering, and ponders the mystery of existence:
How could it be that none of it mattered? It was most of what happened. But if it did matter, how could the world go on the way it did when there were so many people living the same and worse? Poor was nothing, tired and hungry were nothing. But people only trying to get by, and no respect for them at all, even the wind soiling them. No matter how proud and hard there were, the wind making their faces run with tears. That was existence, and why didn’t it roar and wrench itself apart like the storm it must be, if so much existence is all that bitterness and fear? Even now, thinking of the man who called himself her husband, what if he turned away from her? It would be nothing. What if the child was no child? There would be an evening and a morning.
Marilynne Robinson is one of my favorite writers, possibly America’s greatest living writer. The people in her novels never fail to touch me. I read this book while grieving over the recent and sudden death of my cat, and although there’s nothing in this book that directly relates to my particular pain, I found myself caught up in Lila’s pain and fear and in her choice to press forward, letting each day bring the feelings that it will as she tries to figure out whether and how to give and receive love and how to mourn the loves we lost. These are choices we all have to make, even if our particular circumstances differ. Marilynne Robinson, through her characters, offers wise counsel in difficult times.