Farrar, Straus & Giroux , 272 pp. ISBN: 0374187614
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Some novelists grind out the work; Maryilynne Robinson waits until the spirit moves. Lila is just her third novel since her 1980 debut, Housekeeping, and her first since Home in 2008. It completes her Gilead trilogy—sort of, as it’s more of a prequel ; that is, if it’s even possible to have a prequel to an epistolary novel, which was the format of her eponymous 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning work. It does, however, answer a question that might well be on the minds of faithful Robinson readers: Is there a balm in Gilead? Answer: Yes, with qualifications. I have, however, no qualifications in recommending Ms. Robinson’s latest triumph.
Once again we return to Gilead, Iowa—a town once the center of an abolitionist maelstrom, but now so time forsaken that the occasional motorist simply waits for a sleeping dog to rouse himself from the middle of the road. And once again we will visit the modest home of Congregationalist minister John Ames, a man who thinks about John Calvin—a lot. Lila tells the story of how the elderly Rev. Ames met and courted his second wife, the book’s namesake character. It is, in essence, Lila’s back story. Those who know anything about Calvinism know that predestination lies at the heart of Calvin’s theology. Ames, whose first wife and unborn child lie in the town cemetery, has spent his life in semi-reclusive mourning, but his grief, contemplation, and theological debates with his only real friend, the Rev. Robert Boughton, Gilead’s Presbyterian minister, have taught him that true acceptance of predestination can be oddly liberating—one doesn’t waste time yearning for things not in one’s power to grant or deny. Nor does one try to change the forces of nature and Lila is indeed a force of nature.
The book opens in 1920, when four-year-old Lila is stolen from her parents by a world-weary, tattered, and scarred older woman named Doll. We are led to imagine that Doll rescued Lila from abuse, neglect, and probable starvation, but it’s not entirely clear. The first two Gilead novels dealt with race, but this one is more about poverty—the deep, soul-searing variety that reduces humans to basic instincts that trump reason. Doll provides for Lila, but we are talking about life as survival, not reposing in the lap of luxury. The latter is an occasional warm fire or settling down for a few months before hitting the road again. “Family” is whatever band one falls in with from one moment to the next. Peril is a life condition, one that Doll tries to ward off with a lethal jack knife.
Those who know history will recognize that Doll and Lila are essentially “Okies” a decade before that phenomenon was named. The sequencing also means that by the time Lila finally drifts into Gilead n her twenties—after Doll disappears into the legal system and Lila spends some time in a St. Louis whorehouse—it’s the for-real time of Dust Bowl refugees. Why Gilead? At first it’s because there’s an abandoned cabin there to provide shelter; later because she’s intrigued by the Rev. Ames. She has grown up informally-educated, semi-feral, self-reliant, and raw-boned—a woman who might be called “intriguing,” but never “pretty.” Faith fascinates Lila, but not because she believes a wit in salvation; she likes the stories and has a particular affinity for the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, who is generally ranked high on the doom –and-gloom scale. As we might say today, she can relate! For his part, Ames sees Lila as a combination gift from God, test of his theology, and intuitive complement to his intellectual jousts with Boughton. Lila calls Ames “my big old preacher,” and she means “old” literally—he is decades her senior. It’s good that Ames is a Calvinist, because he recognizes Lila as a rolling stone that will gather moss only if she chooses to. Even after they marry and she is carrying Ames’ child, the good reverend knows that Lila might leave him at any second. One of Lila’s few personal possessions, Doll’s old knife, is an omnipresent reminder that Lila doesn’t actually need Ames. So he does what a good Calvinist should do—exchange hellfire and brimstone for the rule of grace, give Lila all the space she needs, and pray that it is God’s plan that Lila will find his kindness, soft bed, warm coffee, and sturdy roof sufficient for the days he has remaining on earth .
This is surely not your conventional love story. Perhaps it’s not a love story at all, but something far greater. Maryilynne Robinson takes her time, but when she releases a novel it packs the power, anxiety, brooding darkness, and redemptive hopes of a Midwestern dust storm. –Rob Weir