Alison Jean Lester’s Lillian on Life is a surprising book. When Lillian begins recounting her life story after waking up next to her married lover one day, I felt sure I was in for a certain type of nostalgic fictional memoir. What did evolve over the coming pages was a poignant, insightful summation of a complicated life.
Lillian comes from a restricted life in conservative Missouri. Her memories begin just after World War Two, and so readers are given insight into a world almost lost: one of Studebakers, soda fountains, domestic ‘help’ and emotional distance within families. A naïve ingénue, Lillian finds the courage to flee a life headed for sensible marriage and repressive expectations to cosmopolitan Europe - a place that is equally overwhelming and enthralling when she first arrives.
Lillian is a woman of contradictions: though she has moved herself halfway across the world, she finds it terrifying to enter anywhere in her new home of Munich without Dostoevsky’s hefty The Brothers Karamazov in her pocket. She is at once bold and reticent, inexperienced and worldly. The world she slowly opens herself up to is unorthodox, much to the disapproval of her mother, and the older narrating Lillian has many insights to share with her readers from the liberal way she lived subsequently.
Despite her candour, Lillian is a difficult character to pin down. She can breezily wax lyrical about how to appear disinterested about men, how to dress well, and the importance of gay men for companions, but she gives the impression that she is careful to construct the way she represents herself. At the start of the novel, Lillian says of her lover:
I wanted Michael to wake up and see us like that: an independent woman beloved of her elegant cat. But of course he didn’t. They don’t. They wake up at all the wrong times, and see all the wrong things.
We’re like her lovers in this sense. Lillian seems to try so hard to convey a certain perception of herself, but in the end we see her for what she is: a very well presented, but very confused woman, desperately trying to hold it all together. I get the impression she doesn’t much like being seen this way but gives up the pretence the more we get to know her.
Hers is a glamorous world of fancy clothes and impressive lovers, but it becomes clear that she is assessing a lengthy life for meaning. When she finally admits:
But I wanted to get married and have children. That had been the plan. Lovers and wine, cigarettes and skinny black clothes – those were the detritus on the rings circling the planet of my dreams. I was in orbit and couldn’t find my way across the void.
I still am. I still can’t.
We exhale. As fun as the journey is with her at times, the reader’s relieved to see Lillian be honest about the regret she feels. Whether or not she achieved her goal is not the point; it just feels like a lot of the book is spent excusing her aimlessness. Lillian is so caught up in the details she loses sight of her bigger picture.
Lester’s writing is sharp. There are many lines that are startling in their unique beauty as they emerge from Lillian’s description of everyday events. And that is where Lester’s prose works best: Lillian describes an outing or a conversation or furniture and then draws from it some life lesson that is so profound it stuns. For instance, when Lillian’s parents arrive in Paris and are uncomfortable with the difference they see in her, she assumes her old ‘high school voice’ and youthful joviality to reassure them. The lesson she leaves her reader with from this is:
It is unfortunate how we have to cripple ourselves for love, but it’s a fact. We have to. Poppa did that more elegantly than any human I’ve ever met, keeping his thoughts to himself on Mother’s complaints and desires, giving the impression that he had gained rather than lost something as a result.
It makes Lillian endearing, the way she can bring beauty out of challenge, those flashes of wisdom start to redeem her distanced narration of life.
And it is distance that the reader feels. When recalling the great love of her life, Ted, Lillian sees paper:
Paper was flying, whirling all over my mind. Letters for him to sign, minutes, memos, interview transcripts, invoices, more minutes, credit card slips, and the fluttering pages of hotel guest books.
Lillian is just as elusive. She is hard to get a grasp on as she flits from country to country, relationship to relationship. She is paper floating on crosswinds. She is so kind to men, so severe with women. She can think so deeply but then next thing be so frustratingly obtuse. She is incredibly hard on herself but then so forgiving of others’ terrible behaviour. She describes herself as being ‘a dandelion and my fluff is gone.’ She is a challenging character to get a handle on.
That is the biggest hurdle of this text: a memoir (fictional or not) is supposed to be deeply personal, exposing the very core of a person, and we don’t see the full ‘rawness’ of Lillian until the last chapters. The fact that this book is structured like a manual on deportment (the chapters are all titled things like ‘On Looking The Part’ or ‘On Behaving Abroad, And In General’) gives her reflections a formality that is jarring. At the end of the book, Lillian instructs her readers that: ‘you must tell your own story. Never let anyone… think she knows you better than yourself,’ and this appeal for authenticity seems ironic: Lillian’s story feels too self-edited. She is a narrator telling a deeply personal story from arms-length.
Yet this is the power of the novel: Lillian is a character that follows you well after the text is finished. I find myself still trying to figure her out. As confusing and divisive as she may be, Lillian certainly sticks. And that is good writing.
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Publication date: 08 Sep 2015
Page count: 256
You can also read our article 'The Waiting Game: Strategies for Patience in the Publishing Industry' by author Alison Jean Lester.