'Lila' Sets The Stage For Marilynn Robinson's Earlier Works

Oct 20, 2014
Originally published on October 20, 2014 5:03 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Readers first met John Ames a decade ago. He's the preacher protagonist from Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer-winning novel, "Gilead." We bumped into him again in 2008 in her novel "Home," and in her newest book he is back once more. It's titled "Lila," and it's shortlisted for the National Book Award. Reviewer Alan Cheuse says it's a prequel - the story of the preacher's second wife.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: This third volume begins off to the side of the story of preacher John Ames. Instead, we meet his future wife, Lila, surviving a difficult childhood and adolescence.

As a young woman she has a sojourn in a St. Louis brothel, but when she drifts into the town of Gilead, she puts all this behind her. In fact, she wanders into Ames's life by way of sitting in the back of his church on a Sunday and then showing up at his house to tend his garden. Before too long, they're swinging together on his porch swing, and in a rather miraculous leap of intuition, Lila takes up Bible study and proposes to the older man.

Throughout all this, Robinson presents Lila as a simple soul - someone who experiences life but doesn't analyze it. Reverend Ames finds in her a good companion, trying out his notes for sermons on her. Life on earth is difficult and grave and marvelous, he writes. Our experience is fragmentary. Its parts don't add up.

But in a novel, they often do. Sublime moments from this odd romance become more and more frequent as the story moves toward the birth of Lila's child. Compared to the first of two books in this trilogy, the pace now and then seems to languish, and the narratives feels somewhat haphazard. But even without having read the first two volumes, the more you stick with this one, the more reward you'll find - sort of like Lila and her Bible study in this unpretentious and affecting novel.

SIEGEL: That was Alan Cheuse reviewing "Lila" by Marilynne Robinson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.