Where does wisdom come from? From book learning? From years of studying scriptures and reflecting on them? From life experiences good and bad? And what happens when such experience cannot be expressed into words? Does one then not know?
Lila, the title character, thinks that she knows nothing, or at least, nothing worth sharing. Since she is not a knowledgeable person, has not gone to school beyond what it took to learn to read and count, she thinks she has little to offer in intellectual conversations.
John Ames, the elderly pastor who marries her, seems to have a very different opinion on this subject. He is in fact quite fascinated by some of the things she says and seeks to understand from where her perceptions and opinions on the world originate.
Lila obviously has had a difficult life, from an early childhood of neglect to a later childhood spent in the care of social outcast Doll, with whom she lived a life of vagrancy walking from farm to farm to find work. They did live in the city for a time, which enabled her to attend school. She ends up working as a prostitute, then as a housekeeper in a hotel. She goes back on the road and makes a scant living helping people with their gardens and laundry until she meets Reverend Ames and agrees to marry him and live with him.
It is difficult to see what draws these two introverted characters together but they both seem to get comfort from each other’s presence and they both look forward to the arrival of a child.
The story is told in a rather indeterminate present time with many flashbacks to earlier parts of Lila’s life. As she feels shame for many of the things she has done and the circumstances of her life, she shares such information with her husband with parcimony.
One gets a sense of two solitudes sharing a home, but never quite meeting.
I did not read the first two books by Marilynne Robinson, so I had absolutely no preconceived ideas when I read this book. It took me a while to get into and to start seeing where it might be going so I could care enough about the characters to keep reading. But I did, and it was greatly rewarding.
Robinson, Marilynne. Lila. Harper Collins, 2014.