BOOK REVIEW: Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell
Ted and his dog Lily have a deep relationship. One built on deep conversations…
“Why do you call me that?”
“Why do I call you what?”
“Why do I call you Monkey?”
“And all those other names.”
“Those are terms of endearment.”
“I don’t understand.” Lily squints as she stares out into the sun.
“Terms of endearment are names or phrases that you use to address someone that you feel great affection for.”
“You have a lot of them for me,” she observes.
“That’s because I have a lot of affection for you.” And then, almost as an afterthought, “Do you have any terms of endearment for me?”
Lily thinks about this. “Mostly I think of you as That Guy.”
I could let that bother me, but I don’t. Terms of endearment are probably a human thing. They’re certainly not a dog creation. They have other things – tail wagging, for instance – instead. To her, I am That Guy. The guy.
Like any good adoptive parent, I have always fed her that line of horseshit: A mommy and daddy who have a baby get stuck with whatever baby they get. But adoptive parents choose their baby, and so they love them that much more. Of course, in most cases, it’s blatantly untrue. Adoptive parents get the call whenever and wherever they do, and so they get the baby they get just the same as parents who actually give birth.
This is my job. This is my moment. I will not be a coward, I will not be afraid. I will not be someone who can love only so much. I will not be someone who is not whole or fully present when things get tough. I will not let others do the heavy lifting for me. I will not be distracted by a text message. Wringing the piss out of this dog I love – this is my Everest. This is on me.
Lily always makes fun of me when I want to be the wheelbarrow or the shoe. She considers these the game pieces of weak, feckless players. She always wants to be the cannon or the battleship or the “shot glass.” (I haven’t had the heard to tell her she’s been playing that piece upside down and it’s actually a thimble. She would be furious if she ever found out.)
…and petty arguments, the kind with which any animal owner can relate.
“Fine. You want to sleep down there? Then you will suffocate. You will cease being able to breathe. And the last thought you will have is that I was right and you were wrong and you will go to your grave regretting having a brain the size of a walnut.”
I lifted the covers and stared down at her and I could just make her out staring at me. By then I had all but given up trying to outstubborn a dachshund, an exercise in futility if ever there was one. All I knew was that I was tired and I needed sleep. I would dig her corpse out of the bed in the morning.
Of course when morning came she was fine.
Throughout their time together, their home life has gone through its changes, expanding and contracting, again in ways many pet owners have experienced.
She was my dog long before we ever met, and while she has become his dog, too, over the course of our relationship, they don’t have the same bond. He does not treat her with the same attentiveness (or, truthfully, the same permissiveness), and when he’s displeased with her behavior he is always the stepparent absolving himself of responsibility by throwing his hands up and calling her “your dog.”
And then Ted notices an octopus on Lily’s head, and their whole life together is about to change.
Mostly I want to talk about how it could be possible that I’ve never seen it before. How I could be responsible for every aspect of her daily life and well-being – food, water, exercise, toys, chews, inside, outside, medication, elimination, entertainment, snuggling, affection, love – and not notice that one side of her head sports an octopus, alarmingly increasing it in size.
None of his friends quite understand what he’s going through, because they haven’t gone through this themselves. But they’re trying.
“How is it like mine?”
“Well, not exactly like yours, because you couldn’t see yours, but Lily’s is just sitting on top of her head for all to see.”
“I never had an octopus.”
“Yes, you did! And if you didn’t I’d like to know what the hell they took out of your Cedars when they cut open your skull.”
“They took out a t-” he starts, before stopping.
“What the hell do you think we’re talking about?”
“I thought we were talking about an octopus.”
“How old is Lily again?”
“No.” I am firm. “I can see what you’re doing, weighing the probative value of my options here. One, I haven’t been to the veterinarian yet, and I don’t know what’s involved in removing an octopus that’s clinging to her head.”
“Two, I am not letting that thing have her. I won’t allow it.”
And understanding comes from the most unexpected of places.
“Well, of course you’re upset, she’s your baby.”
Huh? I’m not surprised that she offers sympathy, I am just surprised at the “of course.” Growing up, we had four dogs. Not all at once, but over the course of eighteen years. None of them were my mother’s babies; she had two human children and that was quite enough. The “of course” is all I need, and I no longer feel ashamed. Of course I’m upset. Of course I’m feeling lost. Of course I have emotions. She’s my baby. Even my mother can see that.
Ted is definitely one of your more unreliable of narrators, and at first this can be a little off-putting. He doesn’t like many people – they often say things that annoy him, he thinks himself above them, and he even has a particularly unique way of dealing with his therapist.
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. That by itself sounds dysfunctional, but it happens to work for me.
He has a hard time confronting things or filtering himself, and this does lead to quite a bit of confusion between Ted and the other characters, but once you get beyond the first few chapters and adjust to the voice of the novel, you’re in for one heck of a ride.
This is a book for anyone who’s ever been faced with the mortality of something with a shorter lifespan than their own. For anyone who has ever loved a furry (or fur-less as the case may be) critter who is so very much a part of their family that life without them could never be the same.
But we almost always do outlive them. Sadly, that’s a contract that we sign up for when we take them into our lives and, though it tears us absolutely to pieces when they leave, we would never choose to reduce the pain by not having them in our lives in the first place.
This book will tear you apart and have you insisting that your respective animals let you cuddle them way more than they might perhaps like, as this reader did during and after reading, but it’s not all sadness and heartache. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, even sometimes in the midst of a sad scene, which will reinforce and remind you of the good times, too.
Just… make sure you have tissues and plenty of time to cuddle your animals while you read this book.
The only bother for this reader was the way excitement was depicted, which is a style choice, rather than anything wrong with the story itself. But every time I came across it, it brought me out of the flow of the story with its clunkiness.
LOOK! AT! THIS! IT! IS! THE! MOST! AMAZING! THING! I’VE! EVER! SEEN! IT’S! A! GREAT! TIME! TO! BE! ALIVE!
OH! BOY! TOFURKY! IS! MY! ABSOLUTE! FAVORITE! I! COULD! EAT! ALL! OF! THE! TOFURKYS! JUST! GOBBLE! THEM! UP!
Thankfully this didn’t come up too often, but often enough for the reader to know this isn’t just the way that Lily or dogs exclaim, as there is a person who does the same. It’s bothersome because it’s not something that I have ever encountered in my reading life that I can think of, it’s two whole steps up from your normal exclamation (Exclamation like this! – EXCLAMATION LIKE THIS! – EXCLAMATION! LIKE! THIS!), and each exclamation mark forces an additional break between reading each word. Each time it came up I thought through why the author/editor might have pushed for this, and could only assume it’s because then each word could perhaps be a bark, but this whole exploration goes out the window when we’re confronted with a person exclaiming in the same way and, if I’m honest, it makes me feel a little uncomfortable about the idea of having a conversation with that person.
This alone wasn’t enough to make the book unenjoyable or annoying, but it was enough to knock it away from being a 10/10 read.
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