If you haven’t read or encountered the great mind of writer /theologian/philosopher Marilynne Robinson, I urge you to read her new novel, Lila, which is the third in a trilogy, though entirely possible to read without the first two. Lila actually takes place before the other two novels, Gilead (which won The Pulitzer Prize in Literature) and Home, which I think was slightly underrated. Robinson’s only other novel, Housekeeping, made her almost a cult figure in the late 80s, when she came onto the literary scene. She teaches at The University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop, and her love of the land and the weather in Iowa pervades all her writings.
Robinson, whom many consider to be one of America’s leading Christian theologians as well as novelist, essayist et . al., has one major trait in common with another great female novelist, the late Dame Iris Murdoch. Murdoch first came to the world’s attention as the first woman to teach/Chair the Philosophy Department at ChristChurch , Oxford, England. She left that prestigious post to write novels, and her philosophical ideas run through her novels and her characters, probably bringing her ideas a wider audience , and giving her a different forum and literary style for her thoughts. Both women can move back and forth between and amongst fields , with equal respect amongst differing audiences. Like Robinson, Murdoch was an award wining novelist; her The Sea, The Sea won the Booker Prize, and others of hers were frequently shortlisted for that most prestigious of all writing prizes.
The invented town of Gilead, Iowa, immediately lets us know that we may be in theological, as well as literary, territory, given the name itself. Gilead, the first of the trilogy, first brings us the beautifully complex and loving Reverend Ames, newly married and with a small young son, after years of solitude, following the death of his first wife and child in childbirth. Given Ames’ advancing age, his wife, the rather mysterious Lila, urges him to write his thoughts on life and religion for his son, who Ames will never see beyond adolescence, if he’s lucky. So these writings, and their exploration of Ames’ mind and theologies, combine with lengthy conversations with his best friend, another Reverend, this time Boughton, and their long, lifetime friendship formsthe backdrop for all three novels. What we know of Lila is that she is not a Gileadian, not religious, and has some kind of exotic background. Gilead’s a slow read, and Robinson is wonderful at reminding us of the slow pace of a hot summer day in a small Midwestern town, and she forces us to slow down our pace to follow the logic of Ames’ arguments/ideas through his letters to his son . The reader learns a ton about Protestant ethics and morality and more about love amongst the three members of this family, between two old best friends; Robinson also shows us the better side of small town life, and the tendency for people to step up and help one another. Gilead is sometimes frustrating in its slow pace, but it is a masterpiece.
Home is best summarized as a contemporary version of the story of The Prodigal Son, and focuses on Rev. Broughton’s ne’er do well son, oneamongst seven children, and, of course, the one he most worries about, grieves for, perhaps loves the most. Conversations between the two old ministers/friends also make up much of the novel, while we , again, learn contemporary ideas about Christian theology.
Lila herself is one of the most fascinating of literary creations in contemporary literature, and her background/narrative is the basis of the novel. Lila has been stolen, literally, as a near baby, by a woman who calls herself Doll, and the two live and work together during the late 20s and into the Depression, mainly as farm laborers, attached to a small group of people who become a kind of family on the edge of survival. This group of men, women and children haunt Lila all her life, but they give her her only sense of family, and of love; Doll, her surrogate mother, truly does love the child Lila, who probably would have died without her “theft”. Robinson is clear that love, support, and bonding between people need not involve money or many material comforts; as Lila eventually marries Rev. Ames and enters a world of middle class comforts, we understand that she is partly prepared by the solid maternal concerns and even mentoring which she received from the rather fierce Doll. Everything Lila finds good in the world comes from Doll, and later from Rev. Ames, who marries Lila and who bears him the young son, the very end of the novel Lila.
Lila learns from her husband’s sermons and meditations on the Christian life how to put together her own narrative/history and give it meaning. The two discuss what “existence” means , often, while Lila slowly begins to reveal her history to her husband, who never probes. Although Doll has taught Lila to trust no one, she has also taught her to trust her, Doll, and that trust/love begins to be transferred onto Rev. Ames. The plot sounds so mundane, but the writing is charged at a kind of fever pitch; the novel pulls at you and won’t let go as we watch a slow transformation in Lila.
Robinson never patronizes Lila and her original roaming band of hungry people; the writer has an uncanny ability to see complex character and goodness in people of all stations, and if you let yourself penetrate into this , and the other novels’ Christian underpinnings, you will find yourself asked to rise up, to meet life’s challenges as gifts from God and as part of His Mystery. Because Robinson makes Ames no fool, no dottering old man, but a smart thinker who puts a ton of work into his sermons, she reminds us about the strengths of small town Midwestern America and the kind of solid people it has generated , and regenerated. She also writes with absolute perfection; her word choices sometimes astonish in their fineness, and her pitch is nearly exhausting: but she is asking all of us to dig a little into our own beings, and suggests there’s a lot more in all of us, too: her novels are entirely anti-materialist, in that sense, as well, and that alone is very refreshing.
America has no other writer like Marilynne Robinson, and her newest novel, Lila, is , again, a masterpiece, so I hope the readers will take a moment out and read Lila, and the two other masterpieces that constitute all of Gilead.