About a year ago, I picked up a stunning book that quickly became my go-to book recommendation. Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead was about an elderly, dying pastor. Desperate to leave something of himself behind to his young son, Reverend John Ames composed letter after letter to the boy, talking about his life, his insecurities, his love of family, his faith in God, and his unshakable belief that the world was a beautiful gift. Astonishingly written, Gilead was a meditation on what it meant to be alive.
Lila is the third book in the so-called Gilead trilogy, focused on the same small town in Iowa where the preacher wrote those letters to his son. Lila was the preacher’s wife, inscrutable in Gilead. The preacher loved his wife, but was always afraid she would leave him for whatever life she had led before. They rarely talked about her past. This book is her story.
The book begins with a kidnapping. A woman named Doll abducts a neglected child from a home for migrant workers. After leaving town and joining a work crew, and the woman names her new companion Lila. Their life is hard, trudging through ghost towns, trying to make enough to eat during America’s Depression. Lila’s life is defined by wanting, by abandonment and by shame. She’s ditched by her makeshift families pretty regularly, and tried a stint in the brothel. She wasn’t very good at it, and was soon demoted its cleaning lady.
Then she stumbles into Gilead, and into Reverend Ames’ church. We know that he falls in love instantly with the shabbily-dressed woman with sad eyes. But Lila can’t see it, standoffish as a rule and nearly feral with apprehension. The two strike up an unlikely friendship, as she plants in his garden and he teaches her about Scripture. She doesn’t understand why he doesn’t leave her; he’s terrified that she’ll leave him. Almost implausibly, the pair marries, and Lila moves into the Reverend’s home unable to accept her change in fortune, always afraid that she’ll forget the memories of her hard life. Because if she forgets her past, then who is she?
Lila is very different from Gilead. One of the things I adored about that book, was the sheer love and melancholy radiating from John’s letters to his young son. Lila is told in the third person, which separates the readers from her story a bit. Lila’s not a woman prone to affection, although she shows it in her own way. This book isn’t about the healing powers of love; rather it’s about what poverty and deprivation can do to a person. And it’s about how that person can come back.
If this book sounds interesting, please please please pick up Gilead first, and use that as your introduction to this melancholy and beautiful world.