Ever since reading Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead in 2004 and then it’s companion novel Home a few years later, I’ve been hoping she would one day write Lila Ames’ story. Lila is a significant but secondary character in these two novels. She’s the rough-around-the-edges, other-side-of-the tracks, uneducated outsider who wanders into Gilead, Iowa sometime in the 1940’s, marries the aging Reverend John Ames, thirty-five years her senior, and has his child. At the end of September, I received an email from Goodreads.com telling me about an upcoming interview with Robinson in time for the release of her new book – the title of the book: Lila.
Robinson writes Lila with the same beauty of Gilead and Home; however, it has a sharpness to which the other novels only allude. A sharpness that is just like the knife Lila brings to Gilead and continues to keep through her marriage and pregnancy. Much of Lila’s backstory revolves around this knife that is more than just a keepsake.
The romance between Lila and John Ames involves fear and uncertainty more than the stereotypical feelings associated with falling in love. Neither of them expects Lila to stick around. In one poignant scene, Ames requests that if Lila leaves, she wouldn’t do it by running away but she would let him buy her a train ticket.
Though uneducated, Lila has learned to read and write and continues to teach herself by copying parts of the Bible given to her by “the old man”, as Lila sometimes refers to Reverend Ames. For me, the fascination of Lila and Ames’ relationship lies in her ability to shake his faith to the absolute core, yet never demolish it. Their conversations go directly to what kind of meaning can be found in life, what kind of meaning can be found in suffering and poverty, are any answers found in this “existence”, a word used frequently in the novel. If any answers are found, they are by no means easy ones.
I’ve often said (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that I think Catholics write better stories than Protestants. Sometime I might go into more detail as to why I think that, but for now, I’ll just say that Marilynne Robinson is a major exception to my theory.