Robinson's readers will recognize the title character and her husband, the Reverend John Ames, from the Pulitzer Prize–winning Gilead, set in the small Iowa town of that name, as well as from the 2008 novel Home. This time around, however, we first meet Lila as a child, when she is spirited away from nightmarish neglect by a woman named Doll, who can't give her much besides her love. For years after Doll disappears, Lila's most cherished possession is the knife Doll used to kill a man to protect her.
Before meeting Ames, Lila has hardly a notion of religion, but she is soon questioning the reverend about the great mysteries—in particular, whether those who have lived without an understanding of God must burn in hell. "I just been wondering lately why things happen the way they do," she says. Through the unlikely pairing of Ames and the much younger Lila, Robinson contemplates the nature of marriage, marveling at the comfort a husband and a wife can offer each other and lamenting what they cannot provide.
Few write more gorgeously about the human condition than Robinson, but here she melds her rich prose with language that is more restrained and elegaic, even rustic. Lila's simple and ungrammatical speech—"Somebody like you got no reason at all to marry somebody like me"—provides a sweet contrast with the formal language of the Bible passages she copies on her tablet.
Ames and Lila face more than their share of troubles—poverty, loneliness, spiritual doubt—but Robinson also glories in their generosity and kindness. Her love for her characters shines through when, after much reflection, Ames finally responds to his wife's concerns: "If the Lord is more gracious than any of us can begin to imagine, and I'm sure He is, then your Doll and a whole lot of people are safe, and warm, and very happy. And probably a little bit surprised."