Marilynne Robinson’s much-anticipated Lila returns to the small town in Iowa where two previous novels, Gilead and Home, were set – but this time, she focuses on the woman who drifted into the life of the much older Rev. John Ames and gave him an unexpected son. Reviewing the book, Leslie Jamison marvels at the story Robinson tells, which grapples with “what makes grace necessary at all—shame and its afterlife, loss and its residue, the limits and betrayals of intimacy”:
The novel weaves together two narrative threads: the present arc of courtship, marriage, and
pregnancy; and the entire past life that delivered Lila to Ames’s church in the first place. Ames, marked by early grief after his first wife and their baby died in childbirth decades earlier, is no stranger to loss himself. “I had learned not to set my heart on anything,” he tells Lila, and she is drawn to this. “He looked as if he’d had his share of loneliness, and that was all right. It was one thing she understood about him.” When you’re scalded, touch hurts: one of the scalded recognizes another, and touches carefully, always. They are both haunted—Lila by the ghost of Doll, the wild woman who cared for her, and Ames by the specter of the life he never got to live with his first family. Part of the beauty of their bond is a mutual willingness to honor the integrity of their former lives. He prays for the “damned” souls of her past, and she begins to tend the grave of his late wife, clearing weeds and pruning the roses.
Lila takes as its core concern what might have constituted, in another narrative, a happy ending: two lonely souls who never expected happiness somehow finding it. But Robinson’s quest is to illuminate how fraught this happiness is, shadowed by fears of its dissolution and the perverse urge to hasten that dissolution before it arrives unbidden.
Jamison adds these thoughts about the grace suffusing Robinson’s writing:
Sorrow casts its shadow, and joy lives under it, surviving in its shade. This bleed between joy and sorrow doesn’t mean happiness is impossible, or inevitably contaminated; instead it reveals a more capacious vision of happiness than we might have imagined—not grace will never deliver you from this mess, but grace is this mess. Or at least, grace is in the mess with you.
Robinson’s grace is all the things we don’t have names for: the immortal souls we may or may not have, a doll with rag limbs loved to tatters. It’s sweet wild berries eaten in a field after a man baptizes the woman he will someday marry. Grace is money for a boy who may have killed his father; it’s one wife restoring the roses on the grave of another. Grace here isn’t a refutation of loss but a way of granting sorrow and joy their respective deeds of title. It offers itself to the doomed and the blessed among us, which is to say all of us. “Pity us, yes, but we are brave,” Lila realizes, “and wild, more life in us than we can bear, the fire infolding itself in us.”
If you can’t wait a few weeks until the novel’s publication date, read an excerpt from it here.