Learning to Live Without Loneliness: Marilynne Robinson’s Lila
Marilynne Robinson’s novel Lila is set in the early to mid-20th century and begins when Lila, a mere toddler, is left on a dark stoop at night. Doll, a young wanderer, takes Lila and raises her as her own. Lila is the story of a rootless young woman who finds herself homeless and isolated, separated from Doll when she dies, which in turn, leaves her fierce and confused about her past, until she makes her way to a small town in Iowa called Gilead. In Gilead, she marries an elderly man who is a reverend in town and together they reshape their lives.
Lila is the kind of book to read while sipping on coffee in your free time. It is not a fast read, but the imagery and characters will draw you in.
Lila is the third book in a series based around the town of Gilead; the first in the series is Gilead and the second is Home. To read Lila, one does not need to read the first and second book beforehand. The only possible disadvantage the reader will have is knowing less history of the town of Gilead and its residents, as well as the exact ages of the characters. Robinsons insinuates the characters’ ages effectively so the reader is not disoriented.
Robinson’s Gilead was presented with the 2005 Pulitzer, and Home was awarded the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction, a prize awarded to female authors.
Lila grows up without any structure or real parents, just Doll and a few others a little older than her. Growing up during the Great Depression, Lila’s story is representative of what a child’s life might have been like on the road as a drifter, finding jobs here and there, moving through life not aware of laws and customs and not having a full education. Since Doll took Lila illegally, there is a sense of constant hiding among the group of young travelers.
Lila struggles to come to terms with her past while living in Gilead and wonders why Doll took her when she was a baby. Robinson sprinkles little pieces of Lila’s past throughout the novel by using the narrator and Lila’s own – very detailed – thoughts. Lila’s thoughts are a much different tone and voice than the narrator’s words, and the difference can be distinguished by diction. The novel moves between the narrator’s point of view and Lila’s point of view often and easily – the only real difference being the use of fragment sentences and the attitude toward Lila and her actions. Lila never got a good education, and therefore doesn’t know the definitions of many words. Because of her education, Lila always second-guesses what her husband thinks of her, but is motivated and intrigued by words nonetheless.
Something that is a bit different about Robinson’s novel than others is there are not any chapters. The chapters are not even missed because of how Robinson transitions through time naturally. One moment Lila as a married woman in Gilead, and the next she is on the road with Doll in some unknown city, and then she is back to the time when she first met her husband, John Ames, before they are married. An example of a good transition is: “Well, there she was in the Reverend’s quiet house, as calm and safe as the good old man could make her.” In this context, Lila was recalling her time growing up, and the next moment she is back to when having not yet arrived in Gilead.
Much of the novel is written in exposition, albeit with great detail. This is where the novel lacks a little, however. The absence of chapters does not deter the reader in any way because there are still moments with various page breaks, but the amount of detail given in exposition can be a little too much at times. This is why the book is not a fast read, per se. For this reason, the scenes in the book where Lila interacts with her husband or other characters are a relief for the reader.
One could argue that the lack of scenes is representative of Lila’s isolation in her life before she found her way to Gilead. She had no one to trust or confide in for a good portion of her life before she was married and after Doll died. She merely had her own thoughts, which often tormented her because of her past. She was unaware of what her life was like before Doll claimed Lila as her own and some past events left Lila confused and bitter. The absence of dialogue in the book is fitting with how Lila doesn’t speak much in general. She is ashamed of her education, and thinks by speaking she is showcasing that downfall.
Religion plays a big role in the relationship Lila has with her husband. She believes her husband thinks negatively of her, and therefore is quite reserved with him. John Ames is a gentle man, one with his own emotional issues – the main one being that his first wife died in childbirth when he was much younger (an event that takes place in Gilead). He quite obviously admires Lila though, and she isn’t capable of seeing that as a good thing. She says, “That old man loves me. I got to figure out what to do about it.” She thinks he’s tricking her like many people on the streets did while she was growing up. Similar to the way Lila resists her husband’s affection, she resists the idea of religion, but is not opposed to it completely.
In an interview with NPR, Robinson talks about the relationship Lila has her with her husband John:
“Being really in love with someone is sort of like seeing them the way they ought to be seen,” Robinson said. “And the fact that we have this as a very isolated experience, most of us, if we’re lucky enough to have it at all, distracts us from the fact that it is another kind of seeing that has a kind of deep grace built into it.”
Lila is never explicitly rude to her husband, but she does hurt him sometimes unintentionally. Fortunately for Lila, her husband sees the person she really is and allows her to go through the changes of being a wanderer to a wife.
Robinson leaves a lot to be interpreted by the reader all throughout the book, and a part of this is probably because the novel is the third in a series. Even if one did not read the first two novels in the series, the reader will not be lost at any time because all the questions are answered in the right time. By allowing the reader to interpret the book for himself or herself, Robinson engages the reader in a different way, keeping them guessing and intrigued without making them feel strung along.
If you like to read literary fiction, Lila is a good fit for you. Robinson writes with such grace and detail, you will be drawn in. It most likely won’t be a book you finish in one or two days, but when you do finish reading it, you’ll feel like you know these characters in and out and they will stay with you for some time afterward.
Reviewed by: Cassidy Carroll