Marilynne Robinson’s Lila is 2014’s Great American Novel

LilaAuthor Marilynne Robinson has written either two or three Great American Novels, depending on who’s counting, most prominently the 2005 Pulitzer Prize–winner Gilead. Her most recent book, Lila, returns to the same small, dusty Iowa town and characters of Gilead and its follow up, the 2009 Orange Prize–winner Home.

Writing a third book in a series is a dicey proposition, especially when the series has no vampires, no witches or wizards, no dragon queens or dragon tattoos, no corpses or disappearances, no adolescent love triangles or kinky sex contracts or any of the usual cliffhangers that leave readers demanding sequels. Even writing a second installment is risky, but when you’ve given the literary world the equivalent of The Godfather and The Godfather II, isn’t it tempting fate to try for Godfather III? We know how that turned out for Coppola.

Yet Robinson, with Lila, completes the hat trick with her third gorgeous, heart-wrenching novel, intimate yet historical, delicate yet as sturdy and clear-eyed in its assessment of heartland values as Twain. She’s less satirical and more forgiving than Twain, but one gets the sense he would, all the same, approve. At least in his less cynical moments.

In Lila, we get the backstory of one of the principal characters of Gilead, old John Ames’s wary and watchful young wife. We learn her secrets, including the derivation of her name, Lila Dahl, both parts of which, it turns out, come with more baggage than a freight train. Known at first simply as The Child, Lila is unwanted and unwashed, mistreated by her actual family, and then saved—technically, kidnapped—by a fierce woman called Doll, who is forever after looking over her shoulder in case the retribution stalking them catches up. Of course, it eventually does.

Before that can happen, though, Lila gets to experience life with a guardian who cares about her, who saves her life with the help of a flinty but kindhearted old woman. The woman takes them in for a time and gives the child her first name.

“I been thinking about ‘Lila.’ I had a sister Lila. Give her a pretty name, maybe she could turn out pretty.” “Maybe,” Doll said. “Doesn’t matter.”

Doll has the same reaction when Lila comes home with a last name—”Dahl,” a mishearing of “Doll”—given to her by her concerned teacher. “Doesn’t matter,” Doll says. This is her tense, terse view of the world. Names don’t bring food, and “pretty” is too flimsy a thing to rest on; instead she focuses on making Lila canny, quiet, and useful. Despite the danger both surrogate mother and daughter are in, Doll takes Lila to a village so that Lila can, in a formal setting, learn to read, and they linger as long as they can.

Then they’re back on the road, taking up with other itinerant farmers, tramping across the Depression-era midwest looking for work. By the time Lila enters Gilead, Iowa, as a grown woman, Doll is gone. What happened to her is one mystery. How Lila ends up married to a town elder, the beloved, widowed Reverend Ames, is another.

It is partly Robinson’s writing that makes Lila so striking, despite the relative lack of incident over the course of the novel, the economy of detail with which Robinson manages to evoke a largely unremembered era and to show us, at both ends of the spectrum, what human beings are capable of. She manages to be poignant without ever being sentimental, and challenging without being difficult. Robinson has written a masterpiece—another masterpiece—about class, religion, and the American dream in the 20th century. Give her whatever award she has yet to win.

Lila is available now.

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