by Marilynne Robinson

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26, 272 PAGES)

Who is this author?

Marilynne Robinson is widely considered to be one of America’s finest contemporary writers, and she is unusual among them in that her work derives inspiration and sustenance from her deep religious faith. She is a Congregational Church deacon. Robinson has written a trilogy of novels about the Iowa town of Gilead: Home, Gilead (which won a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award and Ambassador Book Award) and Lila, as well as her debut novel, Housekeeping. She is also the author of four nonfiction books, When I Was a Child I Read Books, Mother Country, The Death of Adam, and Absence of Mind. She also teaches at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

What is this book about?

Lila opens in the middle of the night, as an abandoned little girl shivers on the doorstep of a Depression-era shack in Iowa, soon to be comforted by Doll, a woman who is a drifter and a loner who pities the child and offers her well-meant, if meager, care. They live on the run, forge a bond against their loneliness and spend years on the road. Then Lila, now grown but still homeless, enters a church in Gilead, meets the much older and widowed minister, John Ames, and eventually becomes his wife. The novel brings back characters from Home and Gilead, and rounds out their stories. It was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction.

Why you’ll like it:

Robinson has a masterly way of creating believable characters caught up in dilemmas of ethical or religious nature, but there is nothing preachy about her writing. She creates these broken people with tenderness and deeply humane insights and puts them into situations where healing is possible, if improbable, and always miraculous.

Robinson told a Barnes & Noble interviewer: “I was just working on a piece of fiction that I had been fiddling with . . . There was a character whom I intended as a minor character… he was a minister, and he had written a little poem, and he transformed himself, and he became quite different — he became the narrator. I suddenly knew a great deal about him that was very different from what I assumed when I created him as a character in the first place. . . . I have to have a narrator whose voice tells me what to do — whose voice tells me how to write the novel.”

What others are saying:

Kirkus Reviews says:  “More balm in Gilead as Robinson  returns to familiar ground to continue the saga of John Ames and his neighbors. Ames, Robinson’s readers will know, is a minister in the hamlet of Gilead, a quiet place in a quiet corner of a quiet Midwestern state. Deceptively quiet, we should say, for Robinson, ever the Calvinist (albeit a gentle and compassionate one), is a master at plumbing the roiling depths below calm surfaces. In this installment, she turns to the title character, Ames’ wife, who has figured mostly just in passing in Gilead (2004) and Home (2008). How, after all, did this young outsider wind up in a place so far away from the orbits of most people? What secrets does she bear? It turns out that Lila has quite a story to tell, one of abandonment, want, struggle and redemption—classic Robinson territory, in other words. Robinson provides Lila with enough back story to fuel several other books, her prose richly suggestive and poetic as she evokes a bygone time before “everyone…started getting poorer and the wind turned dirty” that merges into a more recent past that seems no less bleak, when Lila, having subsisted on cattails and pine sap, wanders into Gilead just to look at the houses and gardens: “The loneliness was bad, but it was better than anything else she could think of.” She never leaves, of course, becoming part of the landscape—and, as readers will learn, essential to the gradually unfolding story of Gilead. And in Robinson’s hands, that small town, with its heat and cicadas, its tree toads and morning dew, becomes as real as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, just as charged with meaning if a touch less ominous, Lila’s talismanic knife notwithstanding. Fans of Robinson will wish the book were longer—and will surely look forward to the next.”

In The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani writes: “Writing in lovely, angular prose that has the high loneliness of an old bluegrass tune, Ms. Robinson has created a balladlike story about two lost people who, after years of stoic solitariness, unexpectedly find love—not the sudden, transformative passion of romantic movies and novels but a hard-won trust and tenderness that grow slowly over time. The novel is powerful and deeply affecting…In the hands of another author, Lila’s back story might sound sentimental or contrived, but Ms. Robinson renders her tale with the stark poetry of Edward Hopper or Andrew Wyeth…capturing the loneliness of her transient existence. “

In The New York Times Book Review, Diane Johnson writes: “Told with measured and absorbing elegance, this account of the growing love and trust between Lila and Reverend Ames is touching and convincing…It’s courageous of Robinson to write about faith at a time when associations with religion are so often negative and violent. And goodness, a property Midwesterners like to think of as a regional birthright, is even harder than piety to convey without succumbing to the temptation to charge it with sanctimony or hypocrisy. That is not the effect of this lovely narrative…In the end, Lila is not so much a novel as a meditation on morality and psychology, compelling in its frankness about its truly shocking subject: the damage to the human personality done by poverty, neglect and abandonment.”

Publishers Weekly says, in its starred review: “This third of three novels set in the fictional plains town of Gilead, Iowa, is a masterpiece of prose in the service of the moral seriousness that distinguishes Robinson’s work. This time the narrative focuses on Lila, the young bride of elderly Reverend Ames, first met in Gilead. Rescued as a toddler from abusive caretakers by a rough but kind drifter named Doll, raised with love but enduring the hard existence of a field worker, and later, in a St. Louis whorehouse, Lila is a superb creation. Largely uneducated, almost feral, Lila has a thirst for stability and knowledge. As she yearns to forget the terrible memories and shame of her past, Lila is hesitant to reveal them to her loving new husband. The courtship of the couple—John Ames: tentative, tender, shy, and awkward; Lila: naive, suspicious, wary, full of dread—will endure as a classic set piece of character revelation, during which two achingly lonely people discover the comfort of marital love. Threaded through the narrative are John Ames’s troubled reflections that the doctrines of his Calvinist theology, including the belief that those who are not saved are destined for hell, are too harsh. Though she reads the Bible to gain knowledge, Lila resists its message, because it teaches that her beloved Doll will never gain the peace of heaven. Her questions stir up doubt in Ames’s already conflicted mind, and Robinson carefully crafts this provocative and deeply meaningful spiritual search for the meaning of existence. What brings the couple together is a joyous appreciation of the beauty of the natural world and the possibility of grace. The novel ends with the birth of their son, to whom Ames will leave his diary in Gilead.

“This is a lovely and touching story that grapples with the universal question of how God can allow his children to suffer. Recommended for fans of Robinson as well as those who enjoyed Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, another exploration of pain and loneliness set against the backdrop of a small town,” says Evelyn Beck in Library Journal’s starred review.

When is it available?

Lila is on the shelves at the Hartford Public Library and its Camp Field branch.

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