Marilynne Robinson’s Lila is an achingly beautiful and deeply spiritual meditation on life, love, humility, loss, redemption and, ultimately, the divine presence of grace. This final book of a trilogy that began with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead takes us back to the dusty little town in Iowa (to which the book is dedicated). It’s a uniquely American place where “dogs lie in the street.”
Lila is also the odds-on favorite to win this year’s National Book Award, which will be awarded later this month. Regardless of that outcome, Lila has already been called a new American classic. It’s a love story between a castoff runaway and an ordained minister and all that heaven will allow.
Lila begins with the protagonist floundering in a filthy, neglected place underneath a corner table, forsaken and alone. One night, in a panic, Lila’s only friend — who we know only as “Doll” — literally swoops the child up in her arms and steals her away. Together on a dark road, Doll and the child seek refuge — first with a kind old woman who, together with Doll, feeds the child several tiny balls of cornbread, perhaps the first real food she has eaten in quite a while. They decide in that moment to give her a “pretty name,” Lila Dahl.
The story is told in a nonlinear, third-person narrative through Lila’s eyes. Later, after Lila becomes separated from Doll, she finds shelter in a church overseen by the Rev. John Ames. Ames (the same man writing to his son in Gilead) falls in love with Lila and Robinson slowly and gently allows Lila to first trust and later love Ames.
Robinson is an exquisite storyteller who is always willing to challenge the reader. The narrative is filled with Lila’s questions as she begins to read the Bible. When asked why things happen the way they do, Ames tells Lila,“I believe in the grace of God. For me, this is where all these questions end.” Ultimately, Robinson offers us a hopeful, bittersweet goodbye to a place called Gilead, where grace and humility will always have a home.