RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
They are universal questions. What happens when we die? Is redemption really possible? And how does loving another person change you? The author Marilynne Robinson grapples with all of them in her newest novel. It's called "Lila." And it's a prequel of sorts. The story takes place in the fictional Iowa town of Gilead. The town's name is also the title of the Pulitzer Prize-winning first novel in this series, which is focused on the story of Reverend John Ames. In that book, readers meet the reverend's wife, Lila. But this newest novel is her story. Here's NPR's Lynn Neary.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: When Marilynne Robinson finished writing her first novel, "Housekeeping," she felt like she still had more to say about the characters.
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: And I just decided that I would outlive the impulse, you know? But then, after I finished "Gilead," I had the same feeling that the characters were still with me and that there was much more that I knew about them than I had ever articulated to myself. And so I thought, well, let's see what's here. And two more books have come from that.
NEARY: Robinson's new book, "Lila," is kind of a prequel to "Gilead." In that book, Reverend John Ames, suffering from a terminal illness, writes down his family's story in a letter to his young son. The boy's mother is Reverend Ames's much younger wife, Lila. We don't learn much about her in "Gilead," but in this new book, we find out just how hard her life has been. Abandoned as a child, she was rescued by a homeless woman named Doll and grew up in a makeshift family of itinerant workers.
ROBINSON: She's a proud, intense, gentle-hearted woman. She's had a difficult experience of life, which is also, at the same time, her major experience of being loved and being in a family sort of situation.
NEARY: By the time Lila reaches Gilead, that surrogate family has fallen apart. Doll is dead; the crew scattered. And Lila is a grown woman who has become used to a solitary, nomadic existence. She's worn out and has began to wonder about the meaning of life.
ROBINSON: (Reading) She had worked herself rough and ugly for nothing more than to stay alive. And she wasn't so sure she saw the point of that. Why did she care what people thought? She was nothing to them. They were nothing to her. There really was not a soul on Earth she should be worrying about at all, especially not that preacher.
NEARY: That preacher is Reverend John Ames. He grew up in Gilead and married his childhood sweetheart, who died in childbirth. Since then, he has lived alone. When Lila steps into his church to get out of the rain, he is immediately taken with her. She's never really been in love, but she sees in him someone who may have answers to her questions. She wonders if she can find salvation in religion. She wants him to baptize her, and eventually he does. They are an unlikely pair. But Robinson says her directness both challenges and attracts him.
ROBINSON: If you are habituated to a certain role in life, you can forget what it feels like to be challenged. And I think that the fact that she comes to him so honestly with these very fundamental questions is very invigorating to him.
NEARY: In a series of poignant encounters, Lila and the reverend approach each other warily. Lila seeks out and then resists the comfort he offers until he wears her down with tenderness.
ROBINSON: (Reading) With her head still resting on his shoulder, she said, I just can't trust you at all. He laughed, a soft sound at her ear, a breath. She started to pull away, but he put his head on her hair. So she rested her head again. He said, is there anything I can do about that? And she said, nothing I can think of. I don't trust nobody. He said, no wonder you're tired.
NEARY: But Lila doesn't slip that easily into love or faith. Her past keeps coming back. Angry thoughts overtake her. She often fights an urge to flee Gilead. At one point, she tries to wash away her baptism because she questions whether a Christian heaven has room for people like Doll, the woman who raised her.
ROBINSON: Speaking from a Christian perspective, that idea seems, on its face, unchristian, you know? And also, there's a way in which, you know, whether you accept these theological propositions or not about, you know, inclusion and exclusion, there's a way in which I think we're kind of culturally ingrained with the idea that people have greater or less dignity or beauty depending on where they - where their lot falls, you know? And I think that's very wrong.
NEARY: If the promise of salvation seems false to Lila, the solace of love does not. She understands, and so does the reverend, that they have found something rare in each other.
ROBINSON: Being really in love with someone is sort of like seeing them the way they ought to be seen. And the fact that we have this as a very isolated experience, most of us - if we're lucky enough to have it at all - distracts us from the fact that it is another kind of seeing that has a kind of deep grace built into it.
NEARY: Lila may think about running away, but she doesn't. As long as Reverend Ames is still alive, she will stay by his side in Gilead. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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