Lila is a prequel to Marilynne Robinson's much-lauded novel Gilead, which I, sadly, found tedious. Indeed, I struggled to finish that book and quickly forgot virtually all of the philosophical/religious discussions that comprised its heart. For readers of Gilead with better memories, Lila was the wife of John Ames, the pastor who was the central character in that novel.
In this novel, we learn about Lila's early years. The book opens with the child Lila sitting outside a house in the cold. A woman named Doll comes along and takes her, becoming her de facto mother. While Doll clearly cares for Lila, the childhood she provides is difficult to say the least. The two live with a band of migrant farmworkers in the Midwest, who camp outside towns and pick up whatever work they can. They do spend one year in a town so Lila can attend school, where she shines but Doll's fears of being found by Lila's original family drive them away. When the Depression makes it difficult to find work, things fall apart and Lila ends up on her own. For awhile she is able to eke out a living, but then she reconnects with Doll, with disastrous effects. After some time in a St. Louis whorehouse, Lila hitches a ride to Iowa, ending up near Gilead. There, she meets the much older John Ames, and the two feel an attraction made up of a complex of yearnings. They marry and have a baby, the boy Robby to whom the letter in Gilead is written.
Those are the events of the story, but the real action takes place primarily inside Lila's head. She is lonely and yet Doll taught her that being alone is the only way to survive, a philosophy Lila struggles to reconcile with the Christian world view of her husband. She wants to stay in Gilead, to embrace family life and turn away from loneliness--and yet she also wants to leave, to assert her ability to make her way through the world on her way, to escape from her shame.
Lila is a complex and sympathetic character and considering her emotional distress and the decisions that spring from her years of profound loneliness is a worthwhile endeavor, since the experiences of her childhood are not that far from many children's lives today.
It felt very good to have him walking beside her. Good like rest and quiet, like something you could live without but you needed anyway. That you had to learn how to miss, and then you'd never stop missing it.
It was that feeling that she had had walking along beside him that put the notion in her mind. It comes from being alone too much. Things matter that wouldn’t if you had a regular life
She had told herself more than once not to call it loneliness, since it wasn’t any different from one year to the next, it was just how her body felt, like hungry or tired, except it was always there, always the same.