Booked Up

Iowa Is/Isn’t For Lovers

Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist Marilynne Robinson returns to her fictional town of Gilead, Iowa, for an unusual romance story.

By - Oct 28th, 2014 01:53 pm
Lila by Marilynne Robinson.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson.

Lila, the latest novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson, is an engrossing tale of survival and spiritual redemption.Set in Ms. Robinson’s famous fictional town of Gilead, Iowa, the book describes a journey of gradual understanding and belonging for the rootless title heroine.

Lila is a perplexing protagonist. She is self-described as ignorant, having only had a year of formal schooling. She practices her reading and writing by copying and recopying Bible verses in an old tablet. She is a tabula rasa, a blank slate ready for someone to help her write her story.

That someone appears in the form of the Reverend John Ames, an elderly preacher who falls in love with Lila’s complete lack of guile and pretense. Theirs is a painful and puzzling romance, short on moonlight and roses, long on misunderstandings and indecision. The reader struggles with this relationship as much as they do. How old is Ames?  How young is Lila? Could any two be more star-crossed?

Much of the joy in reading this story comes from the beautiful way in which Ms. Robinson reveals Lila’s growing understanding of the world and her place in God’s universe. Faith (or its lack) plays a great part in this tale. As Lila gains, Rev. Ames loses, challenged by Lila’s unanswerable questions about God and eternity.

As a little girl, Lila was taken from an abusive household by an old woman named Doll. They lived on the run as itinerant laborers. They fell in with a group of migrant workers and wandered the countryside trying to survive on meager pay and leftover pickings. This sad, rough past colors Lila’s life with Rev. Ames. Haunted by the traumas of those years, her recovery and healing is a joy to behold.

Lila calls us to ponder why some suffer and some prosper. There are no easy answers here, but it is heartening to observe characters struggling with the meanings of life and death. Their questions often go unanswered, but the process of revelation and self-realization continues because of this curiosity.

Lila is a story of faith and forgiveness that will stir many hearts. Not a traditional romance, love is still central to its message. The bittersweet lives that these characters lead seem poised for tragedy, but it will have its readers praying for a happy ending.

Spotlight on Local Writers is looking for local authors who would like to be featured in our weekly column. Please send information and published copies to the site address. Feel free to recommend a local favorite we may have missed.

Upcoming Book Events:

Wednesday, October 29 (7:00 PM): Elizabeth Arnold and Barbara Wuest at Woodland Pattern Book Center. $6-$8

Wednesday, October 29 (7:00 PM): Craig K. Collins, author of Thunder in the Mountains: A Portrait of American Gun Culture, at Boswell Book Company.

Thursday, October 30 (7:00 PM): Milwaukeean Pete Fromm, author of As Cool As I Am and If Not For This, at Boswell Book Company.

Friday, October 31 (7:00 PM): Ticketed Event with Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Kingkiller Chronicles and The Slow Regard of Silent Things
at the UWM Union Ballroom, 2200 East Kenwood Avenue, Milwaukee. Co-sponsored by Boswell Book Company.

Send your book club picks and author event information to me at or on Facebook at  And good reading!

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