Saints and Nomads

MARILYNNE ROBINSON’S Lila is the love story we thought we already knew, but  didn’t. Lila takes us back to Gilead, Iowa, the same setting as Robinson’s novels Gilead and Home, describing the backstory and courtship of old Rev. Ames and the much younger Lila from a completely new point of view.

In Gilead, Ames describes his immediate, unlikely love for Lila, the hard-working wanderer. But Ames’ description of the feeling of love is more vivid than his description of the woman he loves.

The reverse is true in Lila. We learn Lila’s story through thick third-person prose. Robinson’s narration often reflects Lila’s stream of consciousness—a scattered, questioning pattern of thought, apt for a woman digesting the idea of small-town permanency after an exciting, scary, shame-filled life on the road. In the novel’s opening scene, Lila is just a small child, neglected and dying on the front steps of her house. Doll, a loving and hardened itinerant, kidnaps her just in time. It’s unclear if Doll stole or saved Lila. We can’t ever be sure. Either way, her love for Lila is fierce, and Lila comes to depend on it as they travel around the country, living off of door-to-door labor and inside jokes.

Doll is out of the picture by the time Lila arrives in Gilead, but her memory and influence remain in the forefront of Lila’s mind, in the form of mantras and rules for living: Can’t trust nobody. Don’t stay nowhere too long. Churches just want your money. Might as well take pleasure where you can. These are the commandments and proverbs that provide a semblance of structure and guidance for this unchurched nomad.

Suddenly Lila is no longer just the stoic godsend we met in Gilead. She is a loyal gardener, skilled drifter, lousy prostitute, and, eventually, ambivalent wife.

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