BookBrowse Reviews Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley

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Lily and the Octopus

by Steven Rowley

Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2016, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2017, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Sharry Wright

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A highly imaginative story, Lily and the Octopus touches on the bond between man and dog while exploring themes of loss and grief.

Lily And The Octopus is a whimsical, hilarious and deeply moving tale that demonstrates the lengths humans will go to, trying to protect ourselves from the devastation and heartbreak of losing someone we love.

The story, set in contemporary Los Angeles, is told in first person by Ted Flask, a sensitive, sometime petulant gay man whose writing career has stalled since a breakup with his cheating ex-boyfriend. Since then, his feeble attempts at dating have been disastrous. Ted also has an ongoing difficult relationship with his mother, who will never say, "I love you."

Depressed and prone to panic attacks, Ted uses alcohol and pills to numb his pain. He sees an ineffectual therapist, Jenny, because she takes his insurance and has an office close to his neighborhood. About Jenny, he says: "The conclusions she draws are always the wrong ones, but I've gotten good at taking her dimwitted advice and filtering it through the mind of an imaginary and much smarter therapist to get the insight into my life that I need."

Now, more than ever before, Ted depends on his aging dachshund, Lily, for company and conversation. Lily converses with Ted in two ways: "barking" language written in staccato-capitalized single words each with an exclamation point. For instance, the first time Lily sees Ted eating an ice cream cone, she says, "WHAT! IS! THIS! CLOUD! THAT! YOU'RE! LICKING! I! LOVE! TO! LICK! THINGS! WOULD! I! LIKE! TO! LICK! THAT!" She also "speaks" conversationally. Lily is exuberant, charming, child-like and as attached to Ted as he is to her.

The novel opens with Ted's discovery of the "octopus," a malignant brain tumor, attached to Lily's skull. Attachment is the key word here—the tumor is attached to Lily as Ted and Lily are emotionally attached to each other. The octopus too takes on a voice and personality of its own—it is sarcastic, vindictive, and heartless.

Faced with the unacceptable choices of surgery, chemo, radiation or steroids, all high-risk and bound to cause misery, Ted decides to defeat the "octopus" on his own terms. Both plot and character development are structured around Lily's decline and Ted's struggling attempt to deal with it. As he agonizes over the problem, small epiphanies surface. In fact, the story is full of little insights and gems of wisdom. For instance, Ted comes to an eye-opening realization that dogs don't hold grudges, that they let go of their anger daily, even hourly and forgive with each passing moment. This helps Ted begin forgiving himself and the people in his life who have hurt him.

While the novel's overriding themes are grief, loss and letting go, the story is buoyed by humor, whimsy and sweetness without making light of the subject matter. In trying to deal with his situation, Ted quotes Cookie Monster: "Today me will live in the moment, unless it's unpleasant, in which case me will eat a cookie." Ted goes on to say, "While I don't take all of my mantras from google-eyed blue monsters with questionable grammar, this one has taken root." Facing the death of a loved one is also facing our own mortality and fear of death. As the tattoo artist who etches a defeated octopus on Ted's arms tells him, "Death is a unique opponent in that death always wins." But, "if you spend your entire life trying to cheat death, there's no time to embrace life."

The story's ending left me with damp eyes and a big wonderful exhale of satisfaction. I especially recommend Lily and The Octopus to people who understand the powerful bond between dogs and their owners, but really, I think anyone who enjoys emotionally authentic and redemptive stories filled with humor, heart and imagination will find this a satisfying read.

Reviewed by Sharry Wright

This review was originally published in August 2016, and has been updated for the May 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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