The GIST: Lila was a background character in the luminous novel, Gilead. The adored wife of the narrator, I wondered where she came from and how she ended up in the small Iowa town in the 50’s where she lived with the widowed Reverend John Ames. It was obvious that she was different from everyone in that place, ignorant and wary amidst their gentle, learned community. This prequel tells Lila’s story, starting with her kidnapping by Doll, who rescued the child from neglect and possible death, scooping her up off the porch of a squalid shack where she had been locked outside overnight in chilling temperatures. She and Doll join migrant farm workers, living rough and getting by without hope of deliverance. We learn about how she ended up in Gilead and see the development of the deep bond and marriage between Lila and John Ames, and the birth of their son. John lives in fear of losing Lila, while she battles her inclinations to leave every day. This makes sense to the reader, knowing what we do, although the couple struggles to understand and deal with Lila’s distrust and unrest. She challenges him deeply, asking, “Why do things happen the way they do?” reflecting on the injustice and suffering of the world. He knows his Bible well, and leads her in studying it. New to her, she finds it almost absurd. But it also surprises her with truth. They find deep connection and comfort together, if not answers. Their love knows no explanation, and the fact of it helps them both accept other mysteries.
The WRITING: Lyrical and philosophical. Reading Robinson’s books is like lingering in a meaningful and haunting dream. Religion and spirituality are encompassing themes, surrounding the author’s primary focus, which is love in all its forms. In her presentation of Lila’s childhood with Doll, we see an ignorance of any religious teachings. The characters are broken by poverty and hardship, but Lila has something at her core that has survived, and is drawn to goodness. Robinson leads us to wonder about the source of this strength and virtue. She shows us both sides: Reverend Ames believes it’s grace from God, while Lila holds no such belief. Her doubts are sound and voiced with great intelligence, in limited vocabulary. Robinson’s skill and talent are up to the task of using the Bible as a literary tool. If she had an agenda, it wouldn’t work. Her love for her characters is plain and generous, as is her effort to understand them.
BUY OR BORROW: Buy. Although this book can stand alone, it’s part of a trilogy. Gilead, Home, and Lila are complimentary masterpieces. Own them all.
“What would I pray for, if I thought there was any point to it? Well, I guess the first thing would have to be that there was some kind of point to it.”