I read Marilynne Robinson’s novel Lila way back in January, and have been letting my thoughts about it simmer. It is without a doubt one of the best novels I’ve read in years, and it touched me very deeply. How do I talk about a novel like this without using clichés? It’s like falling in love: the poets have said everything there is to say about light and longing and happiness and terror, and left me with banalities. But I’ll try.
When Teresa wrote her review of this book, she pointed out the way that Lila is terrified by the idea of accepting love. She has had a hard, rough-scrabble life, mostly among people who didn’t care about her one way or the other, and she has had to raise her defenses, both physical and psychological. Her only source and object of love, all her life, was a woman named Doll who is now gone out of her life. Lila is alone, and she sees a lot of reasons to stay that way. Yet she is drawn toward love: toward a small church, toward John Ames, toward the child she carries. She doesn’t want to be beholden or vulnerable, yet she wants to love and be loved. The tension is powerful and utterly human.
One way Robinson shows this tension — the push and pull between safety and vulnerability, between solitude and community — is with language. Since Lila grew up so isolated, roaming along back roads with Doll and a small group of other drifters, stopping to go to school only for a single year, she misses many of the meta-concepts many of us take for granted, and use to communicate ideas to each other.
Once, when she was new at the school in Tammany, the teacher asked her what country they lived in. The corn was tall, the sun was hot, the river was high for that time of year, so she said, “Looks to me like pretty decent country.” That is what Doane would have said about it. And the children laughed, and some of the leaned out of their desks to wave their arms, and they whispered the answer loud enough that the teacher would hear even if she didn’t call on them. “The United States of America!”
Of course. Walking along in pretty decent country, why know the names of things? Why stand up above it enough to discuss it? It’s enough to have plenty to eat and a place to sleep and some work to do. What, for instance, is this “existence” that John Ames is always talking about with his friend Boughton? “She knew a little bit about existence. That was pretty well the only thing she knew about, and she had learned the word for it from him. It was like the United States of America — they had to call it something.” It is the same, for Lila, with “baptism” or “love,” “redemption” or “seemliness.” When she discovers that feelings or actions she’s had all her life have names, or even rituals attached to them, her heart lifts: she is not alone in the world after all; not a stranger to everyone on earth. If things have names, it means other people have felt the same way she does, and had some of the same experiences. But even the joy of this necessary, essential connection can’t take away the hardness of the world, or the sorrow of it. At first Lila loves the idea of resurrection because it means she might see Doll again, alive forever.
But Boughton mentioned a Last Judgment. Souls just out of their graves having to answer for lives most of them never understood in the first place. Such hard lives. And there Doll would be, whatever guilt or shame she had hidden from all her life laid out for her, no bit of it forgotten. Or forgiven. But that wasn’t possible. The old man always said that God is kind. Doll was so tough and weary, with that stain on her face, and the patient way she had when anyone looked at her — I never see it, but I know what you see. Whatever it was she did with that knife, who could want to cause her more sorrow?
Instead of that Last Judgment, Lila considers the facts of her existence, and slowly crafts her own theology of love and redemption — one in which God is like Doll, looking for us everywhere, finding us at last. It is a bridge that consists of words as well as tenderness.
Robinson presents some of the deepest issues of human life — forgiveness, connection, death, love, redemption, vulnerability — from the point of view of someone whose life has never given her time, space, words, or metaphors to think about any of these things before she arrived in a small town in Iowa. Lila says, “It could be that the wildest, strangest things in the Bible were the places where it touched earth,” and that is what this book is like: the wildness and strangeness of the human heart, touching earth like a tornado, stripping connections down to their essentials, offering sorrow and wisdom and understanding for suffering as well as love. This is a demanding book, beautiful and clear, measured and thoughtful. Like Teresa, I believe Robinson is one of the best American writers living today. This novel offers compassion and peace with a sense of amazement that there can be such things in a world like this. You can see, perhaps, why I love it.