Were he alive today, John Calvin wouldn’t be the first person I would invite to most book clubs. It’s hard to imagine he’d approve of the characteristic goings-on: the overemphasis on rich food and wine, the idle chatter and gossip, the chain-reaction confessions as merlot-flush attendees admit one after the other that, yet again, they didn’t manage to read the actual book. That said, provided a more austere set of book-club members could be assembled, I think Calvin would be exactly the right person to have in the room for a discussion of Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel, which just may be the most theologically serious American novel in recent memory.
To be more accurate, Lila is the most theologically serious American novel to appear on the scene since the publication of Robinson’s two earlier novels Gilead (2004) and Home (2008). Taken together, these three books, which adopt three different perspectives to explore the lives of two plainspoken Protestant ministers and their families in mid-20th-century Iowa, constitute a standout achievement in contemporary American letters. They are as brilliantly accomplished in literary terms — beautifully written, elegantly structured, and filled with striking imagery and moving stories — as they are profoundly convicted in their revelations of what it means to seek and find (and also nearly lose) God, amid the wreckage of fallen and broken lives and the simple splendors of rural American landscapes.
For Robinson, this integration of faith and art comes from far more than mere intellectual curiosity or aesthetic gifts: She’s a Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist who has also published intellectually demanding essays that are informed by her unapologetic Christian faith, which features a particular commitment to Calvinist theology. She writes out of a well-wrought and firm belief that God exists, in an age and culture that’s presumptuously positioned otherwise. She is therefore a rare source of sophisticated solace for 21st-century bookish believers. As for everyone else, including more standard-issue secular critics and readers — the great majority of whom admire and praise her work just as much and as often — I can’t help but wonder whether they, too, are touched beyond mere appreciation and enjoyment, and can find in Robinson’s pages a startling sense that there is “more life in us than we can bear,” a fullness that finds its source in God.
Lila, the protagonist of Robinson’s new novel, comes to this exact realization over the course of a decidedly varied life, which eventually results in her marrying an aged widower and Congregationalist minister, John Ames, and then giving birth to their son. Readers familiar with Robinson’s earlier novels — and you certainly needn’t be, in order to be captivated by Lila — will already know about this unexpected marriage. Gilead took the form of Ames’s spiritual autobiography and record of his family history and personal friendships, written for his young son, mindful that his own advanced years and encroaching illness will prevent his sharing much more life with the boy, directly. Home focused on the two grown children of Ames’s best friend, a serious man who leads another church in town and also commands a big, thriving, and imperfect family that only throws John Ames’s solitariness in sharper relief: Years before he met Lila, his first wife died soon after giving birth to their first child, who succumbed shortly thereafter.
But in effect, all that we know about Ames’s new wife, as she’s represented with love and concern in Gilead and from a greater remove in Home, is that a taciturn woman with an unclear past came into Ames’s life, very late, and that the two of them married and began a small, happy family in spite of their great differences in age and station. Lila reveals just how miraculous this union is, in light of the protagonist’s life before she met Ames.
We meet Lila as a small child, four or five years old, living in extreme circumstances: She spends her days hiding in and about a Depression-era ramshackle house in the woods, populated by rough men and women. The nameless little girl’s parents are nowhere to be found, and the only attention she receives comes in the form of threats, dismissals, and banishments: When she isn’t forcibly sent off, she hides under tables, even under the house, where her playmates are feral cats. Scarred in many ways, and permanently hungry and sick, she is scared even to stand around on the front stoop, because “if she stayed by the door it might open.” And then, one night, a woman named “Doll came up the path and found her there like that, miserable as could be, and took her up in her arms and wrapped her into her shawl, and said, ‘Well, we got no place to go. Where we gonna go?’” And so begins a sequence of rescue and new difficulties that demand new rescue, culminating in Lila’s meeting John Ames and finding God and family with and through him.
#page#Before then, however, Lila’s only constant in life is Doll, a hard-edged woman of no fixed address who’s also no stranger to violence. Out of an unspoken tenderness, Doll commits herself wholly to caring for the girl she names Lila, whom she soon realizes is gifted with a keen intelligence. The courage of Doll’s effort is made all the more evident by the desperate circumstances of the world around them: The two of them fall in and out with a roving band of proud and poor people led by a grim, religion-hating patriarch. Expecting very little save what she can gain and keep and protect with her well-honed survival instincts and her well-honed knife, Doll forms Lila along the same lines. Under circumstances Lila doesn’t initially understand, Doll bluntly severs their otherwise intensely close relationship after a violent event. Cut off from the only source of love and belonging in her life, Lila drifts downward, and eventually finds herself living and working in a St. Louis brothel.
When the misery of her situation overcomes her stoicism about it, Lila sets off once again. Eventually, she decides to set up in an empty shack near a lush-banked river outside the town of Gilead, Iowa, which she then begins to visit in her one good dress, looking for work and maybe a little friendship. One Sunday, “she got caught in the rain . . . and stepped into the church, just to save her dress. And there was that old man, speaking above the sound of the rain against the windows. He looked at her and looked away again. ‘Blessed be the name of the Lord.’”
Out of this first encounter begins a combination catechesis and courtship made difficult by Lila’s deep mistrust of other people and also of religion, matched to Ames’s self-embarrassed ardor for her and his unembarrassed love of God. A great deal of Lila’s resistance to Ames’s gently romantic interest, threaded through as it is with his firm religious faith, owes to her enduring fidelity to Doll: By any superficial, unformed understanding of sinfulness, Doll has bleak prospects for heaven. And it’s here that one of Robinson’s great gifts as a religiously serious novelist comes to the fore. Not only can she put such concepts as Luther and Calvin’s Deus absconditus into believable and meaningful exchanges between mid-century ordinary Americans, she can inhabit the sensibilities of a scared and sharp-minded young skeptic just as persuasively as she can inhabit the sensibilities of a wise and confident old believer.
But Robinson is far more than a good theological dialogist: She invests the dynamic of these characters with great feeling and vitality by revealing their distinctive humanity, beyond their disparate worldviews. She brings out this human element in Lila’s mixed feelings about her past and about a present and future as a preacher’s wife, and in Ames’s mixed feelings about a present and future that could develop with or without her. It’s a future that involves her, we already know; and yet we are enthralled by how it happens, as Robinson unfolds how Lila and Ames come to know and love each other. This happens through many exchanges — terse, tense, gentle, joyful — about higher things that come in and out of moving contact with Lila’s memories of Doll and of her own life, with John Ames, motherhood, and God. Even without Calvin in attendance, book clubs across America will become sudden houses of worship whenever someone reads aloud from this remarkable novel.
– Mr. Boyagoda’s biography of Richard John Neuhaus will be published by Image Books in February 2015. He is a writer and professor at Ryerson University, in Toronto.