Lila – Marilynne Robinson

The child was just there on the stoop in the dark, hugging herself against the cold, all cried out and nearly sleeping. She couldn’t holler anymore and they didn’t hear her anyway, or they might and that would make things worse. Somebody had shouted, Shut that thing up or I’ll do it! and then a woman grabbed her from under the table by her arm and pushed her out onto the stoop and shut the door…

This is how we are introduced to Lila, the protagonist of Marilynne Robinson’s fourth novel. However, if you’ve read Robinson before, this is probably not the first time you’ve met Lila because when she is older, she becomes the wife of the Reverend John Ames, the protagonist of Gilead. Lila therefore serves as a prequel.

After Lila has been cast out onto the stoop, she is rescued by a woman named Doll.

The door might have opened and a woman might have called after them, ‘Where you going with that child?’ and then, after a minute, closed the door again, as if she had done all decency required. “Well,” Doll whispered, “we’ll just have to see.”

Doll and Lila spend some time with an old woman whose house they come across. She helps Doll feed and clean Lila in exchange for chores around the place. She also gives Lila her name. They have to leave when the woman’s son returns. Throughout the rest of the novel, we discover more about the nomadic lifestyle that Doll and Lila lead and the reasons for it.

The story of Lila’s childhood is interwoven with that of her meeting the Reverend John Ames, their courtship (of sorts), and the early years of their marriage.

“Somebody like me might marry somebody like you because you got a good house and winter’s coming. Just because she’s tired of the damn loneliness. Somebody like you got no reason at all to marry somebody like me.”

He shrugged. “I was getting along with the damn loneliness well enough. I expected to continue with it the rest of my life. Then I saw you that morning. I saw your face.

Lila and John struggle with their respective loneliness throughout the novel, although Lila concedes that the marriage and her thoughts about religion are a distraction, something she fears she could get used to. John deals with his by allowing Lila the freedom she needs, to the point of promising her that if she needs to leave, he will buy the train ticket and see her to the train himself.

However, the marriage is more than simply two lonely people, one of whom struggles to trust others; it’s also an intellectual connection. Lila, newly introduced to religious thinking, asks questions that challenge Ames. In response to one of her questions, Ames writes Lila a letter:

I have struggled with this my whole life.

I still have not answered your question, I know, but thank you for asking it. I may be learning something in the attempt.

Well, he forgot he was writing to an ignorant woman. She’d have hated him for remembering. Still, she’d have to study this a little.

There’s a gap between the way Lila sees herself and the way Ames and the reader view her. This, combined with the loneliness Lila’s reflection of herself imposes on her thoughts and her behaviour, is heart breaking.

I was surprised at my reaction to Lila. I vehemently disliked Gilead; I found the sentences overlong and the religious aspect overbearing. What’s different about Lila, I think, is that it concerns a woman poorly treated as a young child, taught to survive on the fringes of society by a woman who clearly cares for her but has problems of her own. I was barely twenty-five pages in before I cared deeply for Lila and was invested in her outcome. It’s a skilled writer who can create such a character and scenario without making it cloying and sentimental. The lack of linguistic flourishes in Robinson’s prose is of great benefit here.

Lila is a superb novel and while it hasn’t made me want to revisit Gilead, I’ll definitely be reading Home and Housekeeping.


Thanks to Virago for the review copy.

20 thoughts on “Lila – Marilynne Robinson

    • No, I don’t think so, it’s almost all religious thinking from what I recall. The bit I really enjoyed was the ending – not because it was the end but because it was the most interesting reveal. Doll was great, especially when she was sitting on the chair outside the sheriff’s office.


  1. Oo, this has made me want to read it even more. I started with Home and loved it dearly, so Gilead had an extra layer for me, reading it in the wrong place. Then I loved Housekeeping too, so I’m fairly confident about how I’ll feel about this one. I think it’s the way every page she writes has this infusion of regret or melancholy.


  2. Lila sounds great, a character one can invest in. I’m slightly concerned by your comments on Gilead, though, as I’ve never read Marilynne Robinson and it’s the one I have on my shelf…


    • Ha! Well I seem to be in the minority (I definitely was when we read it on the MA, though I was the only person who loved (and even finished reading Austerlitz) and I was definitely right there 😉). I suspect you’ll be much more tolerant of the religious aspect than I am.


  3. I could not get on with Gilead at all, Naomi. One of those occasions when everyone you know seems to be jumping up and down with fervour while you’re thinking emperor’s new clothes – ‘linguistic flourishes’ are one of my bugbears. This one sounds worth a try, though.


    • Hurrah! I’m not alone! I don’t know whether it’s me that’s softened or it’s the change in angle – I’m much more interested in a character on the fringes than a reverend…


  4. This is good to know, Naomi. I was left a little unaffected by Gilead – something I’ve felt kind of ashamed of since Robinson is such a frequently lauded writer. You explain the complex psychology of Lila really well and it makes me intrigued to read it.


  5. Funny, I thought I’d commented on this – must be one of the things I prematurely ticked off my mental to-do list.
    Have to say I feel slightly abandoned by your conversion to Marilynne Robinson. The only one of her novels I’ve read is Home, and still wish I hadn’t bothered – took up so much time for little reward. But have a niggling feeling I’m missing out on something that others so obviously connect to. Perhaps I’ll try Lila.


  6. I’m halfway through and loving it – although not as much as I loved Gilead, I will confess. As a man of faith, it is so rare to read a novel about a Christian where it isn’t all about losing faith (I don’t think I’ve ever read another, thinking about it) – I revelled so much in reading an author who didn’t just disparage Christians, and actually drew such a vivid and beautiful picture of the Christian life; Robinson captures a ‘voice’ so well. And, having said that, I was surprised when it appealed to non-Christian people! So I can definitely understand why it wouldn’t work for you. (Although it is very much a novel about faith, rather than religion, which is another reason I loved it so much.)

    So, Lila is probably my least favourite of the trilogy, but – wow – still so very good! Robinson is my favourite living writer, and I will lap up anything she writes now.


  7. Pingback: Books of the Year 2014 (Part 2) | The Writes of Woman

  8. Oh my! I’ve finally read this novel and absolutely loved it. It’s good to read that I wasn’t the only person with reservations about Gilead. You’re absolutely right about her skill in not making Lila’s story sentimental and her shrewd use of short declarative statements to make really big statements. I think it’s going to be such a strong contender for the Bailey’s Prize. I’ve not read Home or Housekeeping either but now really want to.


    • Thanks, Eric. I agree, I think it will make the Bailey’s shortlist. I also haven’t read either of those but I think I have them both. It’ll be interesting to see what we make of them having had mixed experiences so far.


  9. Pingback: In the Media: 15th March 2015 | The Writes of Woman

  10. Pingback: Bravo The Booker Prize! | The Writes of Woman

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s