Sampling Marilynne Robinson

I’m reading Lila, Marilynne Robinson’s third book set in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa. The first, of course, was Gilead—winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award—and is the late-in-life ruminations of the Reverend John Ames.

Gosh, I loved that book. And now I’m loving Lila, which explains the origins of Ames’s second wife, who was raised in a transient lifestyle during the Dust Bowl years of the Great Depression. Lila has trust and abandonment issues due to her damaged childhood, but we see her slowly falling in love with—and beginning to trust—this man who is twice her age. In this passage, she’s been out for a walk and decides to surprise her husband in his office at the church. The year is 1949 or ’50.

But when she did go to his office he wasn’t there. Of course he wouldn’t be hiding from her, but that was the first thought she had. The room just felt like he should be in it. The whole church felt that way. People who live in rooms and houses don’t know about that. It seems natural to them. You might pick up something belonging to somebody and feel for a minute how theirs it is, particularly if you hate them enough. But a whole roomful of somebody’s days and thoughts and breath, things that are faded and they don’t see it, ugly and they don’t care, things worn by their habits, it seems strange to walk in on that when you’re almost nothing more than a cold wind. She did wish she could at least find a way to tell him how hard it was, the ache you feel walking out of a cold day into a warm room. And here she was angry at him for being somewhere else, almost crying about it. Because here was his whole long life and it had nothing to do with her unless he was there with her to say, This is Lila, Lila Ames, my wife.

Well, she thought, standing here worrying about it doesn’t make much sense. He’ll be at the house. …

He wasn’t there, either. The house was empty. Probably someone had died, or was about to die. Plenty of times he was called away to do what he could where comforting was needed. The last time it happened he came in the door at midnight, grumbling to himself. He said, “Asking a man to apologize on his deathbed for the abject and total disappointment he was in life! That does beat all.” He took off his hat. “So I took them aside, the family. And I said, If you’re not Christian people, then what am I doing here? And if you are, you’d better start acting like it. Words to that effect.” He looked at her. “I know I was harsh. But the poor old devil could hardly get his breath, let alone give his side of things. There were tears in his eyes!” He hung up his coat. “I’ve known him my whole life. He wasn’t worse than average. Wouldn’t matter if he was.” And then he said, “You shouldn’t have waited up for me, Lila. The two of you need your sleep,” and he kissed her cheek and went up to his study to pray over the regret he felt because he’d lost his temper. Anger was his besetting sin, he said. He was always praying about it. She had thought, If that’s the worst of it, I’ll be all right.

This woman can flat write, friends, and even though I’m not including this in my Study This series—because, quite frankly, I don’t have it in me to deconstruct or analyze or review Marilynne Robinson; she doesn’t need me, anyway—you should read it.

Here’s why. I’d intended just to give you this excerpt in a Short Saturday post, yet as I transcribed* just this little bit, I saw so many beautiful uses of craft. So I changed course and will, at least, bring your attention to the novel’s use of:

• Themes

If you’ve ever wondered about how to employ theme in your work, consider what Robinson does with the concepts of alienation, abandonment, trust, belonging (or not belonging); for thematic symbolism (that is, metaphor), watch for babies and children, blood and water. Watch for that knife, too; observe how beautifully she places Chekhov’s Gun (er, knife).

And the POV! Oh, my goodness. It’s that very tight, limited third person—every single bit of the story is seen through Lila’s own eyes. Note how her insecurities show, how her fondness shows, how her past is revealed (Lila didn’t grow up living in “rooms and houses”); look how easily she moves from past to present, almost in a stream of consciousness sort of way, messy, like the inside of your head is. :) (The Times’s reviewer completely missed it, and yes, I am gloating. The New Yorker’s reviewer, on the other hand, knew what she saw when she saw it.) It’s perfect.

I have often said—and you know this yourself—if you want to write well, you must read well. You must read the good stuff—literature that will expose you to technique and artistry. This is one you might read.

* This is an example of why writing teachers tell you to transcribe—to copy out—passages you really enjoy or connect with: it’s an in-depth analyzation that no one needs to explain for you. Something magic happens between fingers and brain, and you’ll grok it as you copy. Try it.


Tweet: Sampling Marilynne Robinson. Man, she’s good.
Tweet: Lila: As I transcribed just this little bit, I saw so many beautiful uses of craft.
Tweet: If you want to write well, you must read well. This is one you might read.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


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  1. […] it’s come to my attention that you did not get the next post—Thursday’s “Sampling Marilynne Robinson.” Nor did you get the Short Saturday post, or yesterday’s “Begging the Penultimate […]