Marilynne Robinson first came to public attention in 1980 with her award-winning novel Housekeeping. Her devoted readers had to wait over two decades for her next novel, Gilead, which turned out to be the first installment in a trio of stories set in the ’50s in the village of Gilead, Iowa. Gilead was followed by Home and now Lila, which brings the stories full circle. Gilead was a long letter written by elderly minister John Ames to his very young son, telling the boy all the things that Rev. Ames knows he will not live to tell his son. Lila is the boy’s mother. While Gilead admits us into John Ames’s heart and mind, Lila tells us who Ames’s young wife is, where she came from, and how she and John Ames came together.
Ames lost his first wife and their only child in a single stroke. Buoyed by his faith, his flock, and his friendship with a follow minister, he perseveres in his calling in the small town where generations of his family have lived and died. Expecting to remain ever loyal to his dead wife, Ames has adapted to loneliness. But one Sunday, a stranger, a skittish young woman seeking shelter from a drenching rain, steps into the back of his church during the service, and Ames find himself drawn to her.
The elderly minister and the young woman, Lila, are slowly pulled into each other’s orbit despite their differences. Much older than Lila, Ames is learned, cultured, and rooted in family and the village. Lila is rootless, having been snatched very young from an abusive home by a woman named Doll. Lila and Doll lived rough, traveling with a group of migrant workers, and settling for just a year so that Lila could get a little bit of schooling. Doll and Lila loved each other fiercely—to the point that Doll killed a man to protect Lila. Now on her own, apparently abandoned by Doll, Lila stumbles into Gilead, where she sleeps in an empty shack on the edge of the village and works day jobs, gardening and cleaning for local women. Lila and Ames slowly come together in a strange but lovely dance. He is cautious, hesitant; she is wary. She is puzzled by much in his life, especially his religion, and bluntly poses questions that first startle him but then spark conversation between them. “He was beautiful for an old man. She did enjoy the sight of him. He looked as if he’d had his share of loneliness, and that was all right. It was one thing she understood about him. She liked his voice. She liked the way he stood next to her as if there was a pleasure for him in it.” Their warmth and unlikely symmetry draw them together into companionship and then into marriage. Warmth and tenderness blossom into love.
No one else writes like Marilynne Robinson. She crafts exquisite descriptions of the natural world and captures the tiniest details of human tenderness. Her sentences, with their Biblical cadence, often read like poetry. And she writes with tremendous seriousness, allowing her characters—and reader—to consider questions of faith and meaning. You’ll want to savor every page of this beautiful, thoughtful novel.