Robinson was born and grew up in Sandpoint, Idaho, and did her undergraduate work at Pembroke College, the former women's college at Brown University, receiving her B.A., magna cum laude in 1966, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. She received her Ph.D. in English from the University of Washington in 1977.
Robinson has written three highly acclaimed novels: Housekeeping (1980), Gilead (2004) and Home (2008). Housekeeping was a finalist for the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (US), Gilead was awarded the 2005 Pulitzer, and Home received the 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction (UK). Home is a companion to Gilead and focuses on the Boughton family during the same time period.
She is also the author of non fiction works including Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution (1989), The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought (1998) and Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (2010). She has written articles, essays and reviews for Harper’s, The Paris Review and The New York Times Book Review.
She has been writer-in-residence or visiting professor at many universities, including the University of Kent, Amherst, and the University of Massachusetts' MFA Program for Poets & Writers. In 2009, she held a Dwight H. Terry Lectureship at Yale University, giving a series of talks entitled Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self.
On April 19, 2010, she was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She currently teaches at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and lives in Iowa City.