Reading The Season: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Every year before Christmas, I read something that can draw me closer to the meaning of the Season. Amidst the busyness of the festivities, I try to carve out a piece of quiet. I name these annual posts Reading The Season. You can click on the links at the bottom for previous entries, dating back to 2008. This year, the publication of Marilynne Robinson’s third Gilead book, Lila, is a most timely read.

GileadGilead (2004) – Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critic Circle Award winning novel introduces us to the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa. We hear the gentle voice of the narrator, the ageing Rev. John Ames, as he writes a letter to his seven-year-old son Robby, leaving a legacy of family heritage, love, forgiveness, and serenity.

HomeHome (2008) – Based on the same Gilead characters, but from a different point of view allowing us privy to the household of the Rev. Robert Boughton, John Ames’s life long-friend. Glory, Boughton’s daughter, comes home to take care of her ailing father. She is there when her brother Jack returns after an absence of twenty years. The black sheep of the family, Jack’s estranged self yearns for reconciliation like a prodigal. The book, in all its complexities and depiction of alienation, escape, return and lost yet again, suggests home may not be a solace as sweet as one hopes.


Lila (2014) – Robinson’s newest, and 2014 National Book Award finalist. It is the third novel based on the characters in the town of Gilead, offering yet another point of view. But one can just read it on its own, albeit best to have read Gilead first, then the kind face of John Ames can be conjured up more readily. In this book, the perspective is from Ames’s much younger wife Lila, at first lonely and desolate, slowly drifting into place.


Lila Dahl

At the outset, we see Lila as an unwanted child, “cold”, ‘all cried out’. She is rescued by Doll, a destitute woman herself yet still has room in her heart for an abandoned little girl. Doll wraps Lila into her shawl and decides to bring her up. “Lila was the loneliest child, and there they were, the two of them together, keeping each other warm in the rain.” Lila later takes up Doll’s name as Dahl.

The two joins a small group of itinerant field workers led by Doane, living in camps out in the open. But the Depression breaks up the cohesive work party. Lila is later left on her own and for a little while, works in a brothel in St. Louis. Knowing she can’t stay there for long, she slips out one night, escaping from a blackhole of hopelessness.

After that she finds herself a cleaning job at a hotel, from which she has to escape again after seeing her nemesis whom she first encounters while in the brothel. She packs her bag and leaves town, taking rides from strangers going to wherever they drop her. Ultimately, Lila drifts to the outskirt of Gilead, finds an abandoned shack and takes shelter there. She cleans up the shack for a place to sleep, having no plans except to find odd jobs in the town yonder, earn enough money, then moves on, maybe to Sioux City.

Lila lives a life of poverty, loneliness and fear, mistrusting everyone. Doll may have been like a mother to her but she too has her own rough life and struggles. Doll knifes and kills a man who might be Lila’s own father, could well be out of protecting Lila. She is later jailed, leaving the knife in Lila’s possession. Lila keeps it with her all the years as a memento, a murder weapon, yes, but also a symbol of Doll’s loving protection and Lila’s own desolate past.

One day walking into Gilead Lila stumbles into a church to escape the rain, that is the turning point of her life. She sees the old man at the pulpit, the Rev. John Ames, and, he sees her.

John Ames

We know a lot about Ames from Robinson’s first book of Gilead, set in the 1950’s. A Congregationalist pastor in the town, Ames is sixty-seven years old when he first meets Lila, “a big, silvery old man”. Coming from a family tradition of ministers, John Ames is a man with a pastor’s heart.

Ames has had his share of personal grief. He had to bear the death of his beloved wife of his youth and his newborn son as she died in childbirth. Such unspeakable pain he had shared with his best friend Robert Boughton, pastor of the Presbyterian church in Gilead.

Ames and Boughton have been life long friends. They share pastoring advice, discuss foreign policies, debate theological problems, and bear the burden of each other’s family woes. Boughton has his in his son Jack, who takes John Ames’s namesake.

After seeing Lila at the church as she comes in from the rain, Ames keeps her in his heart. Residents of Gilead befriend Lila, giving her jobs, welcoming her in their midst, but Lila is aloof and skeptical, an outsider still. Ames personally engages her to talk and to know her more. One day, he goes to seek her out at the shack. She sees him coming as she walks towards Gilead. There on the path he reaches out to her and promises marriage. An inexplicable love story takes shape.


Ames and Lila

“… the old man kept on courting her, like a boy, when she was hard and wary…”

After they are married, however incompatible it looks in Ames’s home, Lila still keeps Doll’s knife with her as a memento and as a symbol of her own tumultuous past, a part of herself. Ames is unperturbed. He lets her keep it, and he even uses it, taking it as a normal tool around the house. Total acceptance.

If condescension is present in the relationship, it is Ames who wants to learn from Lila. His utter humility is what moves her. Barely literate, Lila yearns to know about the Bible, study it and grasp its richness and meaning. They talk about the difficult books of Ezekiel and Job. Ames shares his thoughts about this elusive notion called existence, and listens attentively Lila’s perspective and experiences. Total respect.

Lila has questions rooted in her bitter past, the why’s of misfortunes, cruelty, and the hardships in life. She asks Ames with an inquiring heart. Ames, a pastor of many years, can find no easy answers. He ponders Lila’s queries, and readily and honestly admits his own limitations in knowing, while loving her all the more. Total humility.

Even after they are married, Lila sometimes still conjures up thoughts of leaving. Ames  knows this and gives her the freedom:

… if you ever change your mind, I want you to leave by daylight. I want you to have a train ticket in your hand that will take you right where you want to go, and I want you to take your ring and anything else I have given you. You might want to sell it. That would be all right. It’s yours, not mine… ” He cleared this throat. “You’re my wife,” he said. “I want to take care of you, even if that means someday seeing you to the train.” He leaned forward and looked into her face, almost sternly, so she would know he meant want he said.

She chooses to stay, a genuine response to his love.

When I read the book, I see a tender love story between two utterly incompatible beings, like an allegory and a parallel of the Christmas story, how the Creator God reaches out to take our hand, initiating an unfathomable relationship. Love for the reason of pure love. An unlikely and inexplicable union.

The Christmas Story

I first felt a little uncomfortable about the obvious incongruous pairing of Ames and Lila, yet, their love relation comes to fruition, albeit looking tentative at first. The gap between Ames and Lila is just a crack in the pavement when compared to the abyss separating Creator God and His creation. I see Ames and Lila’s story as an allegory, if you will, a parallel, however meagre, illustrating the joining of two utterly disparate sides.

The essence of the Season is in the reaching out to bridge that huge chasm. As Ames and Lila’s newborn son at the end of the book is an evidence of their love, we too receives a child, born in a manger that day in Bethlehem, a sign of ultimate mending. Total reconciliation.


Other Reading the Season Posts:

2020: Jack by Marilynne Robinson

2019: A Hidden Life, a film by Terrence Malick

2018: Madeleine L’Engle’s Poem The Irrational Season

2017: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle

2016:  Silence by Shusaku Endo

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013 Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle 

2010: A Widening Light, Poetry by Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season, Madeleine L’Engle 

2008: The Bible and the New York Times, Fleming Rutledge 

2008: A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis


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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

22 thoughts on “Reading The Season: Lila by Marilynne Robinson”

  1. This is such a popular book at the moment, but I thought your review stood out as being particularly sensitive.
    It reminds me of my and my husband’s relationship. He was much older than me, I was at a stage in my life when I needed rescuing. It did look strange to others and looking back on it, it feels strange to me. But it was real at the time, and we were totally at home with each other.


    1. Denise,

      Thanks for sharing your experience. I think you’ll find Lila an inspiring read. Hope you’ll get the chance to experience it, and the other Gilead books (esp. the first one) in your quiet time this holiday season. 😉


    1. Shari,

      Home offers a different perspective on the events and characters, a more complex read I think, dealing with difficult theological issues. You’ll find it intriguing. As for Lila, I’m sure you’ll see what I mean by saying it’s a ‘Christmas story’. 😉


    1. nikkipolani,

      Yes, they are all good reads, albeit not necessarily easy reads. Although Lila stands on its own worth as a fine book, esp. for the current Season, reading Gilead first would be my recommendation. 😉


  2. You gave a very nice review to this book, Arti. I have to tell you, frankly, that it would not be a book I would read, it seems a bit pessimistic and a bit too religious for me, too. I do like to read books with a Christmas theme, but usually mysteries that happen around Christmas or New Year’s time. I just bought one today.

    I am pleased that Christmas can be now, at least in most Western countries, a holiday for people of various faiths, or no faith – it is now regarded as a time of giving and sharing, and that is wonderful. I just read that it is a cultural holiday celebrated by over 160 countries, many as a secular holiday. My cousin, who lives near Paris, has a little Christmas tree (and she never goes to any religious place of worship) and across the street is a Muslim family from Morocco and they also have a tree, as well as the Jewish family down the street. (But that is in France, of course.) Since we have one planet I think it is great to have certain holidays to unite us. I understand that in large cities in China the celebration of Christmas has gained a lot in popularity. My daughter has an au-pair from mainland China now, so I’ll ask her about it when I see her. I don’t think that being celebrated in a secular way takes anything away from people who want to celebrate it as a religious holiday, and they can. I was surprised to find out, though, that in early American times, it was not allowed by the church and people who celebrated it were fined, they were strict Puritans (they called it “Foolstide” and said it had not originated as a Christian holiday since ancient Rome celebrated the birthday of the sun god Mithra on December 25th.)


    1. VB,

      The mark of a progressive and democratic society is the allowance for diverse views. I’m glad to see Christmas has been embraced by many, ‘religious’ or not, such that the notions of joy, peace and giving are celebrated. That is precisely my purpose for these ‘Reading the Season’ posts. Many celebrate the December festivities for various reasons; I try to dwell on what’s significant for me during this time too, pondering the origin and meaning of this festive Event.

      I can think of a parallel here. If you’re a Muslim in a Western society, you observe Ramadan and would try to uphold the very essence and meaning it entails while you fast during the ninth month of your faith calendar. One day your government inaugurates a ‘National Diet Month’ at the same time, where everyone joins in the fast, Muslim or not, you would still want to–maybe even more–treasure the essence and original purpose of Ramadan, despite the fact that now many will fast with you and maybe thank you for it.

      As to how Christmas is celebrated in other cultures, I’ve a first hand experience as one who was born and grew up in Hong Kong, and am still aware of what’s going on there. As a matter of fact, the people there don’t shy away from the religious meaning of the occasion, because it is an open society and religious views are respected, and there are quite a few. While nowadays here in North America, in Canada anyway, the word Christmas is beginning to be a taboo word to be politically correct, over there in Hong Kong, they still use the word freely; its literal Chinese translation is ‘Holy Birth Festival’. No need to shy away from the Christian connotation, for one is not offended by it, and knows that uttering the word doesn’t necessarily mean one subscribes to that belief system. In that respect, it’s a more free and open society there, you see, at least for now.

      Thank you for stopping by the pond and throwing in your 2 pebbles. Enjoy your December festivities. 😉


  3. You’ve recommended “Gilead” to me before, and now that I’ve read this wonderful review, I’m ready for all three volumes.

    I think the relationship between Lila and Ames works beautifully as a metaphor for the relationship betwen God and humanity. Certainly, the story stands as a reminder that the bridging of every gap in our lives is possible only because of that wholly unexpected bridging which first appeared in Bethlehem.

    At heart, Christmas is a reminder that, through the incarnation, all is made holy. A book such as this can communicate truth as surely as the Bible, and you’ve done a beautiful job of putting forth its truth.


    1. Linda,

      Yes, I think Christmas is a good time to kick off the Gilead reads. One point regarding the book Lila, my associating the story of Ames and Lila with the Christmas story is purely my own personal construct, not that Marilynne Robinson has mentioned that explicitly in the book. And from all the reviews I’ve read, none has mentioned this linkage. Now here I’m reminded of Roland Barthes’s ‘The Death of the Author’: once a book is written, it has passed onto the minds of the reader to interpret and create. That’s the joy of reading, isn’t it?


  4. I love your idea of “reading the season.” I believe I have Gilead on my reading piles. Maybe it’s time to dig that one out and give the series a start. Thanks for the in-depth look at the characters Your review is certainly a good one and that holds a lot of weight for me!


  5. Not sure how I missed this post! I’ve read all three books but didn’t see the Christmas story in the relationship between Lila and John Ames. I need to consider this now. Very interesting post, Arti.


    1. Gretchen,

      I think starting with Gilead is best. MR has a very distinct voice, but sometimes needs the reader’s patience to hang on and listen. Thanks for exploring Ripple and reading some of my older posts. Always a pleasure reading your comments. 🙂


  6. Hi Arti, Today is February 6, 2020 and I was reading on the books that might make good movies and then I was looking around on your site, and discovered Lila and went to google online and read a few pages and then bought it on kindle. Thank you. God bless, C-Marie


    1. C-Marie,

      As the poet Robert Frost wrote: “… as way leads on to way” I’m glad finally you’ve arrived here. Hope you enjoy Lila. And if you think of any books you’d like to see made into a movie, do share with us in the “Unfilmed Novels” post. 🙂


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