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.