Lila by Marilynne Robinson Reviewed by Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge

LilaLila by Marilynne Robinson; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014. 261 pages; $26.00 (hardcover); reading level: adult.

This third installment in a series of “companion” novels covering the same events from different viewpoints (see Gilead, 2004 and Home, 2009) fills us in on the mysterious Lila. Rescued as a small, motherless child by Doll, Lila was wrapped in a shawl and carried away from a shack of unnamed people outside of St. Louis just before she died of utter neglect. It was the 1920s, people were poor, and only an offhanded “Where are you going with that child?” marked the merciful kidnapping. Through the following years under Doll’s fiercely loving protection – years of bare subsistence with a few breaks along the way – Lila carries a surprisingly generous thought with her: some unknown person washed the blood off her infant body just after she was born and kept her alive until Doll arrived to rescue her. Doll grows old and mysteriously disappears; Lila, now an adult, hitches a ride which lands her in an abandoned shack outside of an Iowa town called Gilead. Lila’s hardscrabble backstory is interspersed with the present-tense counterpoint: her current life in Gilead where she marries the elderly preacher John Ames, a human being gentler and more caring than any she has known since Doll, leaving her face to face with a brand new problem: how to make peace with her undeserved good fortune. Thorny doctrines such as grace, free will, predestination, damnation, and a prayer-answering God who can seem deaf as often as not are woven into the narrative with great sensitivity toward believers and skeptics alike. Robinson writes with the clarity of a mountain stream; she never fully answers many of the theological-questions she raises in her novels. But she asks them with respectful boldness. Believers and skeptics alike seem drawn to this peculiar novelist. Perhaps we’re all hoping that, should answers come crashing down from heaven on Marilynne Robinson, we might, if we’re standing near enough, find ourselves pricked by a flying splinter of red hot spiritual insight.

Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge, Author

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