Book review: Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

Here’s the mark of a good book and audiobook: when you repeatedly finish your commute home and just sit in the car for half an hour and more, listening to what comes next.

Even more impressive, it’s not an action-packed story, nor one loaded with suspense. It’s a quiet tale of one woman’s life, hard-knock flashbacks mixed with the present, where she’s navigating an unexpected marriage and pregnancy.

I finished this third book in the series, by the way, just in time for the president to interview the author.

This series was a remarkable journey for me, because my reactions went from “eh” to the first book, “ooh” to the second, and “I MUST OWN THIS” to the third.

The point is that Lila hit a lot of my buttons. The same buttons as did the last book I reviewed, in fact — namely, the effects of child abuse and neglect, claiming a child in an unconventional way, the search for family and belonging and home.

Lila’s background was fascinating to me. Before this book, I’d known nothing about the class of white migrant farmhands who traveled the Midwest in pre-Depression years. They rejected the label of gypsies, but what they were instead goes unnamed.

I loved the way Lila spoke. She called herself an ignorant woman, but she was clearly intelligent and very self-aware. Her vocabulary appeared limited, but there was a beauty to it, in what she communicated with just a few simple phrases and combinations.

I am still very curious about what Lila will do after Ames dies. There are a few suggestions made in her POV — she sees herself on the road again with her son, yet always ensuring he prays before every meal and becomes the man his father would have wanted him to be. I wonder if by the time Ames does pass, the town will support her and her son enough so she doesn’t have to leave, or if she finds it harder to do than expected, to take her son away from the only house he’s known, from the place where he knew his father. Maybe she and Glory will bond together to support each other.

Some favorite passages:

[when Lila was first rescued by Doll, when she was very small and sick, neglected]

When the old woman went away again Doll would whisper to her, “Now, don’t you go dying on me. Put me to all this bother for nothing. Don’t you go dying.” And then, so the child could barely hear, “You going to die if you have to, I know. But I got you out of the rain, didn’t I? We’re warm here, ain’t we?”

[Lila remembers the migrant band’s leader, Doane, and the woman he favored, Marcelle]

Once, he bought ribbons at a carnival and tied one in her hair and one in a bow around her neck, and wound one around her wrist and one around her ankle, kneeling right on the ground to do it and setting her foot on his bent knee. Doll said, “They’re married people.” Lila had no particular notion of what the word “married” meant, except that there was an endless, pleasant joke between them that excluded everybody else and that all the rest of them were welcome to admire.

[after Lila first proposes to the pastor John Ames, and they discuss the idea]

“What if it turns out I’m crazy? What if I got the law after me? All you know about me is what anybody can tell by looking. And nobody else ever wanted to marry me.”

He shrugged. “I guess you don’t know me very well, either.”

“It ain’t the same. Somebody like me might marry somebody like you just because you got a good home and winter’s coming. Just because she’s tired of the damn loneliness. Somebody like you got no reason at all to marry somebody like me.”

He shrugged. “I was getting along with the damn loneliness well enough. I expected to continue with it the rest of my life. Then I saw you that morning. I saw your face.”

[after they are married, and Lila hears Ames and Boughton discuss theology, she learns one of the most difficult questions of Christianity — what happens to those not saved, which she and Ames briefly discuss]

For a while Lila had liked the thought of resurrection because it would mean seeing Doll. The old man might have his wife and his child. She would have Doll, so that would be all right. There would be such crowds of people, but she would look for her until she found her if it took a hundred years. She understood the word “resurrection” to mean just what she wanted it to mean. The idea was precious to her. Doll just the way she used to be, but with death behind her, and all the peace that would come with that.

…But Boughton mentioned a Last Judgment. Souls just out of their graves having to answer for lives most of them never understood in the first place. Such hard lives. And there Doll would be, whatever guilt or shame she had hidden from all her life laid out for her, no bit of it forgotten. Or forgiven. But that wasn’t possible. The old man always said that God is kind. Doll was so tough and weary, with that stain on her face, and the patient way she had when people looked at her — I never see it, but I know what you see. …Lila hated the thought of resurrection as much as she had ever hated anything. Better Doll should stay in her grave, if she had one. Better nothing the old men said should be true at all.

He came into the kitchen and sat down at the table. “I must seem like a fool to you,” he said. “You must think I’ve never given a moment’s thought to anything.”

She was always surprised when he spoke to her that way, answering to her, when she had never read more than a child’s schoolbook. “I’d never think you was a fool,” she said.

“Well,” he said, “maybe. But I do want to say one more thing. Thinking about hell doesn’t help me live the way I should. I believe this is true for most people. And thinking that other people might go to hell just feels evil to me, like a very grave sin. So I don’t want to encourage anyone else to think that way. Even if you don’t assume that you can know in individual cases, it’s still a problem to think about people in general as if they might go to hell. You can’t see the world the way you ought to if you let yourself do that. Any judgment of the kind is a great presumption. And presumption is a very grave sin. I believe this is sound theology, in its way.”

[after a scare when Lila is pregnant and she goes missing for most of a day, visiting a shack she had once lived in and meeting a ragged teenager — she and Ames talk the next morning]

“I hate to seem to be questioning you, Lila. But when I heard you had gone out there, I thought it might mean you weren’t happy. You know, here, with me. I knew from the beginning that things might be difficult, and I thought I could accept whatever happened. But it never crossed my mind there might be a child. I thought I had learned not to set my heart on anything. But I find myself thinking about that child — much of the time. So the idea that you might want to leave — it would be extremely difficult for me to live with that.”

She said, “I ain’t leaving. Farthest thing from my mind.” If this was not entirely true, it was true enough. “I just go off to look at pelicans and everything goes haywire. I don’t know. I thought I might as well get some use out of that money. Took me all summer to save it up.”

“I only asked because, if there was anything I could do to make you want to stay –”

She said, “My child is going to have a big old preacher for its papa, and live in a good, warm house, bad eat ham and eggs three times a week. And it’s going to know all them hymns by heart. You’ll see.”

“Well,” he said, “that will be wonderful. Wonderful.” Then he sat down to his breakfast. He said his grace to himself, behind his trembling hands, and she thought it would be good if she could tell him she had meant to buy him a present with her money, but that would sound like a lie, and then he wouldn’t trust her the way he wanted to.

She said, “That boy out at the shack, he was just an ugly, dirty, lonely little cuss, half scared to death. And I was thinking he could’ve been any child that had nobody to take him up and see to him.”

He looked at her. Then he said softly, “I did know you. I do know you,” and his eyes filled with tears.

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