The Power of Grace
For Marilynne Robinson, who has been called America’s George Eliot, loss and loneliness do not rule out solace.
Marilynne Robinson tracks the movements of grace as if it were a wild animal, appearing for fleeting intervals and then disappearing past the range of vision, emerging again where we least expect to find it. Her novels are interested in what makes grace necessary at all—shame and its afterlife, loss and its residue, the limits and betrayals of intimacy.
In Lila, her brilliant and deeply affecting new novel, even her description of sunlight in a St. Louis bordello holds a kind of heartbreak: “When a house is shut up like that in the middle of a summer day the light that comes in through any crack is as sharp as a blade.” The notion that light might hurt—that illumination doesn’t always arrive as salvation, or that salvation might ache before it heals—echoes the novel’s articulation of a more personal kind of pain. “That was loneliness. When you’re scalded, touch hurts, it makes no difference if it’s kindly meant.”
Except it does make a difference, or it can. Witness a woman who has just been baptized by the man who will become her husband: “That was what made her cry. Just the touch of his hand.” Lila explores what that crying expresses—joy and scalding at once. In these pages, Robinson resists the notion of love as an easy antidote to a lifetime of suffering or solitude, suggesting that intimacy can’t intrude on loneliness without some measure of pain.
The novel, Robinson’s fourth, returns to the small-town world and church-steeped characters of its predecessors Gilead (2004) and Home (2008). Both of these novels examine the lifelong friendship between two Iowa preachers and the entwining of their families. Lila tells the story of the second wife of one of those ministers, John Ames, offering a portrait of a woman whose brutal, itinerant past makes it difficult for her to accept domesticity and love when they come. The novel opens in her childhood, when she is rescued from neglect by a woman named Doll—a fierce savior and survivor and killer—who carries her away one stormy night: “Doll may have been the loneliest woman in the world, and she was the loneliest child, and there they were, the two of them together, keeping each other warm in the rain.” Lila proceeds to break open the potential of this moment. How does one person’s loneliness intersect with another’s? What renewal can come from this convergence, and what are its limits? Sometimes one loneliness meeting another looks like prayer in the darkness. Sometimes it looks like a sandwich. Sometimes it gives rise to those more recognizable ways we collaborate on dissolving solitude: getting married, having a child.
The premise of Lila is just that: a marriage catches husband and wife by surprise—both of them stunned not merely that they would love each other but that they would love anyone, that life still holds this for them. Ames, long entrenched in his identity as an aging widower, finds himself unexpectedly drawn to Lila—a much younger woman who appears in his small town of Gilead after years adrift, fending for herself. “I don’t trust nobody,” she tells him. To which he replies, aptly enough, “No wonder you’re tired.”
The novel weaves together two narrative threads: the present arc of courtship, marriage, and pregnancy; and the entire past life that delivered Lila to Ames’s church in the first place. Ames, marked by early grief after his first wife and their baby died in childbirth decades earlier, is no stranger to loss himself. “I had learned not to set my heart on anything,” he tells Lila, and she is drawn to this. “He looked as if he’d had his share of loneliness, and that was all right. It was one thing she understood about him.” When you’re scalded, touch hurts: one of the scalded recognizes another, and touches carefully, always. They are both haunted—Lila by the ghost of Doll, the wild woman who cared for her, and Ames by the specter of the life he never got to live with his first family. Part of the beauty of their bond is a mutual willingness to honor the integrity of their former lives. He prays for the “damned” souls of her past, and she begins to tend the grave of his late wife, clearing weeds and pruning the roses.
Lila takes as its core concern what might have constituted, in another narrative, a happy ending: two lonely souls who never expected happiness somehow finding it. But Robinson’s quest is to illuminate how fraught this happiness is, shadowed by fears of its dissolution and the perverse urge to hasten that dissolution before it arrives unbidden.
Loneliness persists past union. Lila finds herself “more at peace” in the ramshackle cabin where she first took refuge in Gilead “than in the old man’s house, kind as he always was.” She is constantly thinking about leaving—buying a bus ticket and taking off—a fixation that stems from her deep distrust of needing anything from anyone: “Being beholden was the one thing she could not stand.” In Lila, intimacy isn’t pristine. It’s a mess, hope and tenderness bound up with resistance and awkwardness and doubt. One day Ames reads his wife a sermon he has written in the middle of the night (readers of Gilead will be familiar with these sermons). He’s been struggling with the disjuncture between the old life and the new, trying to understand how they can be reconciled: “So joy can be joy and sorrow can be sorrow, with neither of them casting either light or shadow on the other.” The grip of the past endures, but doesn’t hollow out the present; the present doesn’t cancel out the pain that’s come before it.
Robinson’s determination to shed light on these complexities—the solitude that endures inside intimacy, the sorrow that persists beside joy—marks her as one of those rare writers genuinely committed to contradiction as an abiding state of consciousness. Her characters surprise us with the depth and ceaseless wrinkling of their feelings. Lila reflects, for example, that if she left Ames, she would be teaching him “a new kind of sadness,” because his first wife hadn’t chosen to leave—he hasn’t yet known that hurt. In the next moment, we see that this fantasy isn’t cruel so much as self-sustaining—a way of convincing herself that “maybe he really does care whether I stay or go.”
Robinson’s choice to keep returning to the world she first introduced in Gilead is itself a way of paying tribute to complexity. Beneath the surface of each character, the trio of novels reminds us, is a particular and infinite soul. The aging Reverend Boughton—fumbling in Lila with the baptismal water for Ames and Lila’s infant son—has already been revealed in Home as a man with his own vexed relationship to paternity, buffeted by love and sadness for his wayward son, Jack. In Robinson’s previous two books, we’ve mainly glimpsed a more placid vision of Lila—caring for her son or tending a garden—but now her demons and her depths are exposed. In this exposure, Robinson implicates us all. Everyone is full of demons. Depths are everywhere.
Lila reaches even further back, too, offering a bridge between Robinson’s fiction of the past decade and her first novel, Housekeeping (1980), the haunting tale of two sisters—and three generations of the women in their family—that heralded a startling new voice, and then a long silence. Housekeeping gave us Sylvie, a drifter who eventually enlists her young niece in a vagrant life; Lila is another incarnation of the uprooted woman for whom home offers scant comfort. One of Robinson’s great gambits in Lila is to stage the collision between this itinerant female consciousness and a particular kind of male domesticity: the grief-ghosted home of a man who has largely given up on this world and committed himself to the next one.
While Housekeeping left Sylvie wandering, Lila settles—however uneasily—into the rhythms of an anchored life. She makes a home, she tends a garden, she tends a grave. She gives birth to a child. She worries about inheritance in utero, fearful that her unborn child must feel the shuddering of her “scared, wild heart.” But we also see her maternity as a culmination of her life, not just a rupture from her rootless ways. Robinson has tracked early signs of Lila’s desire to offer care: the rag doll she loved as a child, the prostitute’s baby she wanted to raise herself, the runaway boy to whom she offers cheese and crackers—and herself as confessor—when he admits he may have killed his father. By the end of the novel, a you has crept into the prose, and the third-person narrative has become a bequest addressed to the child Lila has delivered. Gilead was an ailing father offering his son a meditative self-portrait before his own death. Lila is the same boy’s mother offering him the story of his birth.
Narrative can become a protest against mortality, against the ways in which our bodies sever the same bonds they’ve made: bonds of sex and love and kin and blood and care. In Lila, as in all of Robinson’s books, those bonds are suspect, and they are also our sustenance. We attach despite ourselves, even when we are so broken that we no longer believe ourselves capable. “You best keep to yourself,” Lila thinks, “except you never can.” Lila misses Doll with a visceral force—“Her body, her hands remembering how Doll used to comfort her”—even as she resents how that bodily memory insists: This meant something to you. It did.
Robinson’s fiction also exposes the vexed terms of our devotion to the wonders of the immanent world. A boy blowing bubbles, a tree covered in dew, a handkerchief stained by black raspberries, the rustling of sheets as a husband and wife settle into bed: there is sublimity in these details, but also a preemptive sense of mourning—our mortal attachments are only ever distractions from the eternal, precursors to inevitable loss.
Flashes of the eternal appear in Lila as truths without names. “I got feelings I don’t know the names for,” Lila says, and her husband, speaking of those roses she tended on his first wife’s grave, says, “I can’t tell you what I felt when I saw that. I don’t think there’s a name for it.” This is what Robinson does, what she is unafraid of: she illuminates what we can’t possibly describe.
The eternal world also shows up as a reminder of mortality itself: “the sorrow of his happiness” whenever an aging Ames takes pleasure in his newborn son. So perhaps his sermon isn’t entirely true. Sorrow casts its shadow, and joy lives under it, surviving in its shade. This bleed between joy and sorrow doesn’t mean happiness is impossible, or inevitably contaminated; instead it reveals a more capacious vision of happiness than we might have imagined—not grace will never deliver you from this mess, but grace is this mess. Or at least, grace is in the mess with you.
Robinson’s grace is all the things we don’t have names for: the immortal souls we may or may not have, a doll with rag limbs loved to tatters. It’s sweet wild berries eaten in a field after a man baptizes the woman he will someday marry. Grace is money for a boy who may have killed his father; it’s one wife restoring the roses on the grave of another. Grace here isn’t a refutation of loss but a way of granting sorrow and joy their respective deeds of title. It offers itself to the doomed and the blessed among us, which is to say all of us. “Pity us, yes, but we are brave,” Lila realizes, “and wild, more life in us than we can bear, the fire infolding itself in us.”
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