Reviewed by Danielle Pullen
Lillian, a single, well-travelled woman of a certain age, wakes up next to her married lover and looks back at her life. It's not at all the life she expected.
Walking the unpaved road between traditional and modern options for women, Lillian has grappled with parental disappointment, society's expectations and the vagaries of love and sex. As a narrator she's bold and witty, and her reflections - from 'On Getting to Sex' to 'On the Importance of Big Pockets' or 'On Leaving in Order to Stay' - reverberate originally and unpredictably.
Lillian is lying in bed with her current lover. From this launchpad the novel begins with a series of reminiscences of Lillian’s strong of life-long relationships with men. She talks about the pleasures, the difficulties and the other people involved in each affair. Often the content is sexual and it can be unexpectedly hard-hitting at times with Lillian giving an incredibly honest snapshot of her desires, want and frailties.
This book came highly recommended with statements form Karen Joy Fowler (We are all Completely Beside Ourselves) and Kate Atkinson (Behind the Scenes at the Museum among many more) adorning the cover. Therefore I was eager to get started and devour the text. What a disappointment. For me, the book had a number of issues.
I didn’t like Lillian. Here was a character who detailed having relationships with married men without thinking through the consequences or the morality of that decision. She didn’t seem to have a moral compass and was actually rather shallow. Lillian seems like the sort of person who goes through life making the decisions based on what makes her happiest, disregarding the feelings of those these decisions may harm. I found this a very difficult and unlikeable quality. Lester is clearly trying to make the point that the problems Lillian has in her relationships with men is as a result of the issues she had with her mother and father. However, Lillian fails to realise this, even at the end of the book. This is hugely frustrating and demonstrates a lack of intelligence in the character.
Another issue for me was the structure of the text. I’m not sure if it was supposed to be a series of anecdotes, short stories or a novel. Each chapter had some commonality in terms of characters but there was no real plot or narrative and each chapter could be read as an independent stream of consciousness. This meant that the writing was rather disorganised and disjointed – given Lillian’s personality, I did wonder if this confusion was the purposeful desire of the writer. Although the text as a whole had difficulties, I did feel that, on a micro level, Lester was very clever with certain sentences, with some clear and incisive descriptions and ideas. For example, ‘A big man chewing his lip is an attractive, vulnerable thing. A small man chewing his lip is a rodent.’ This small excerpt successfully snapshots an idea in such a succinct and entertaining way.
In concluding, Lillian on Life is certainly honest which is to be commended as the writer has clearly taken a very brave decision to make her central character such an untraditional and flawed woman. However, for me, there were real issues with plot and, although the writer hints at another level of understanding, this does not really work and there is no depth of understanding that might make Lillian a more sympathetic character. Rather than a novel, this book is a series of musings of experience but it certainly left this reader very unfulfilled.
I'd like to thank Danielle for her honest review of Lillian on Life which we received from the publisher.