If you’re a dog lover, or better yet a Dachshund owner, you will instantly recognize the staccato language of Lily’s yips: “LOOK! AT! THIS! IT! IS! THE! MOST! AMAZING! THING! I’VE! EVER! SEEN! IT’S! A! GREAT! TIME! TO! BE! ALIVE!”
A promising start: we hope Lily is right, that it is indeed a “great time to be alive.” But then again, we also know where animal stories usually end up—and in Steven Rowley’s book, the end, embodied by an ever-growing octopus, shows up on page 2. So how, we wonder, is this possibly a great time to be alive?
We first meet Ted Flask, Lily’s “guy,” grieving the end of a six-year relationship, harboring feelings of guilt, unable to write (it’s his profession), rejecting offers of help, and incapable of actually liking himself—all of which makes it difficult for Ted to open up to the possibilities of life and love.
Ted, it seems, lives a constricted existence through a daily routine of activities with Lily—she alone provides the non-threatening “yes dog” support he craves. But, Reader, take heart: for most of the book, Ted remains alienated from other humans, yet as the story unfolds, Ted unfolds—and this is what draws us in.
But there is a problem: Lily isn’t well. The story builds slowly, sometimes with humor, sometimes with sadness, but hovering over everything is Lily’s illness—and, worse, Ted’s self-centered inability to confront it. At times, we lose patience, but the intimate details of Lily and Ted’s relationship, man and dog, gradually begin to soften us and win us over.
Persisting throughout is Ted’s magical thinking, which culminates in a Life of Pi like voyage off the California coast. As readers, are we to accept that denial of imminent loss is a good thing? Perhaps this unwillingness to stare profound loss in the face enables us to re-emerge into the world on sounder footing. This would make for a good book club discussion: how do we cope with grief, and how do we re-engage with life?
Out on the Pacific, an enormous sea change take place, and Ted becomes a hero fighting off the mythical dragon, in this case the octopi. Once back on land, it is no surprise that the end must come. But with the end comes a beginning—Ted finds himself opening up, not only to the language of emotion, but to emotion itself, the powerful sense of loss. And so in the end (a well-written one), Steven Rowley surprises us by offering a comforting resolution in which we find an understanding that after loss can come life.
If you guessed from her photo that Fiona is an outdoors enthusiast, you would be right. A former Brit now living in the U.S., Fiona deals in rare and antique books. When she’s not on horseback, walking her beloved spaniel, or in her garden, you’ll find her reading and reviewing.