Cover image for Lillian on life
Lillian on life
Lester, Alison Jean, author.
Publication Information:
New York : G.P. Putnam's Sons, [2015]
Physical Description:
240 pages ; 22 cm
"A middle-aged woman in the 1960s looks back on her life as a single woman and on the men in her life"--
General Note:
"A novel"--Jacket.
On the dual purpose of things -- On the back seat -- On how to study -- On getting to sex -- On "us" -- On the importance of big pockets -- On behaving abroad, and in general -- On English as a foreign language -- On remodeling -- On the food of love -- On leaving in order to stay -- On big decisions -- On the danger of water -- On looking the part -- On the way to go -- On not loving the help -- On white -- On one-night stands -- On memory's mismatched moments -- On getting out of bed -- On fate -- On overflowing -- On the end -- On what happens next.
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"I absolutely loved  Lillian on Life ." --Kate Atkinson

"I found it full of life and full of wisdom." --Erica Jong

Smart, poignant, funny, and totally original, Lillian on Life is as fresh and surprising as fiction gets.

This is the story of Lillian, a single woman reflecting on her choices and imagining her future.  Born in the Midwest in the 1930s; Lillian lives, loves, and works in Europe in the fifties and early sixties; she settles in New York and pursues the great love of her life in the sixties and seventies. Now it's the early nineties, and she's taking stock. Throughout her life, walking the unpaved road between traditional and modern choices for women, Lillian grapples with parental disappointment and societal expectations, wins and loses in love, and develops her own brand of wisdom. Lillian on Life lifts the skin off the beautiful, stylish product of an era to reveal the confused, hot-blooded woman underneath.

Author Notes

Alison Jean Lester  was born in California and has traveled all her life and variously studied, worked, and raised a family in the United Kingdom, Italy, China, Taiwan, Japan, and Singapore. She now lives in England.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Debut author Lester brings to life a fascinating protagonist, Lillian, a middle-aged woman with a delightfully honest approach to life, love, and happiness. Scenes from Lillian's life are presented in a series of brief chapters that are arranged in a nonlinear format, which heightens the feeling that the reader is in a conversation with this compelling woman, learning about her experiences as she chooses to describe them. Love is a common theme Lillian has had one grand romance and many lesser loves but her subjects include everything from late-in-life sexuality to family to the workplace. Lillian is the cosmopolitan aunt we all wish we had the one who always bestows the best advice just when it's needed, knows the perfect gift to give for every occasion, and tells the most interesting stories about her life. It's easy to imagine Lillian passing along her collected musings on life and love to a beloved niece with the inscription, Here is what I've learned. Go forth and seize every opportunity, and experience everything it leads to. Lester has given readers the grand gift of Lillian's wisdom, beauty, and candor in this lovely novel.--Donohue, Nanette Copyright 2014 Booklist

Library Journal Review

Women have, for generations, heard talk of the concept of having it all; sexagenarian Lillian can speak knowledgeably on the topic. In a series of vignettes she recounts the decisions she's made that have brought her here, to present-day New York City, along with the importance of self-actualization. From her early years in the Midwest, where she enjoyed a special bond with her father to career and love-life decisions that led to living as an expat in Europe to finding and losing the love of her life in New York, this lively and insightful debut novel (after the author's collection Locked Out: Stories Far from Home) holds up the decisions women make every day to analysis and introspection. It is startlingly frank and sometimes funny or shocking or heartbreaking. There's a raw and intimate quality to the first-person narrative that counterbalances the vignette structure, which is a little hard to get into. VERDICT While this book is more demanding than typical women's fiction, the rewards are worth the time. It's a strong choice for book groups and readers seeking "something different."-Amy Brozio-Andrews, Albany P.L., NY (c) Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof*** Copyright © 2014 Alison Jean Lester On the Dual Purpose of Things Whenever I wake up next to a man, before I'm fully awake, I think it's Ted. Of course it never is. That's okay. This morning I watched Pandora walk the length of Michael's naked body. His skin turned to gooseflesh as she started up his thigh. Her pretty gray paw depressed the flesh of his belly, and his sleeping penis rolled toward his hipbone. She stepped off him at the shoulder. She could have walked on the bed; there was a little space between him and me. Maybe he doesn't exist for her. Maybe she was saying that he's no better than a mattress. She snuggled into my neck, purring smugly like an idling Jaguar. 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. To be fair, we drank a lot of red wine last night, and I can hold it better than most people. My eyes still snap open in the morning. Wine is still my friend. I hate that I can't drink coffee in the wee hours and then sleep anymore, though. The body evolves, then it devolves. It's terrible. One day you're someone you know, and the next you're someone you don't. You dry up. It's embarrassing. Every once in a while I wonder if I'm glad Ted didn't stick around for my menopause. A woman has so many things to hide after fifty. I ask myself if we could have tolerated so much physical change, followed by dotage. I don't have to wonder with Michael. He comes and goes. There isn't time for him to notice everything. The trick at my age is to keep some K-Y Jelly in an attractive pot on the bedside table. You squeeze it out of the tube into the pot for when you have a visitor. When his hands are beginning to move on you, you turn away and slip your fingers into the jelly. He can caress your bottom or your shoulders in the meantime. When you turn back you take him in your hand and lubricate him. Maybe he's not even erect yet, and this way you have the satisfaction of knowing that what you're doing for him is working. I'm not sure there's a bigger satisfaction than that in life. And as long as he's feeling it's for him, you've diverted his attention--and even your own--from the fact that the lubrication is for you. On top of it all you maintain your sense that you've still got plenty of sap in your tree. Name me a wife who does that. Michael's wife is crazy. She probably didn't seem it when she was young. She probably just seemed young. Now she just seems silly. That hair band of hers. The tangential things she says. She's almost as tall as I am, and only about five years younger, fifty-two I think, but she blinks at you. She stands up tall and her chestnut hair sits perfectly turned up on her shoulders in the same way I'm sure it has since 1960, and she smiles and blinks, as if to protect herself from anything modern or unpleasant. Imagine life by her side. How would you ever connect? Well, you wouldn't. Do some people not need excitement? I've always thought humans were too complicated not to need stimulation. What does Michael do to keep his wife hanging on? Or what does she do that keeps him married to her? I don't like to ask. I've learned not to cling. He sleeps really late when he's with me. I don't think it's allowed at home, certainly not naked. He's intimated as much. Separate beds too. I thought my parents' marriage had come to an end the day their twin beds arrived. I didn't know it was happening all over the neighborhood, probably all over the country, and Mother was merely keeping up with the Joneses. But how often did the Joneses go up to my parents' bedroom? Never. Mother just felt them walking around in her head, and had to keep up. I got up when my stomach started rumbling. Thank God Michael sleeps through that too. Accommodating Pandora was giving my neck a cramp. I wanted my usual breakfast: milk so skim it's almost blue, a banana, an English muffin with a thin slice of cheese, black coffee. The breakfast I like happens to be excellent for the bones and muscles and digestion of a woman my age. I think just about everything has a dual purpose, like K-Y Jelly. It's lonely eating alone when there's someone in the house, but then again, you can use the bathroom and get that all out of the way before they get up. The advantage to not living with a man is that you avoid each other's smells. For the most part, Michael moves his bowels elsewhere. I learned early on to keep matches in my cosmetics kit for when I was "visiting," and in my toilet when being visited. You light one and guide the flame around the inside of the toilet right after flushing. You won't burn yourself if you hold the match between the first joints of your index and middle fingers like a tiny cigarette. Then you wash your hands thoroughly. Since the sink is usually closer to the door than the toilet, anyone entering the bathroom after you will smell soap before they smell anything else. Mary taught me this back in Missouri. Poppa's bath- room had bright sun in it in the morning, a small TV, eventually, and a box of matches on the windowsill that she had put there. This was one of the many reasons I could list as a child why black people were superior. They were clearly the smart ones; we obviously couldn't cook without them, and that was just the beginning. I loved hearing Mary in the bathrooms when I woke up in the mornings. In Poppa's, she opened the window and flapped and refolded the towels, then there'd be a quiet moment and that was when she was using a match in the toilet bowl. Poppa's "time" was right after his early breakfast and his second cup of coffee. After airing his toilet, Mary'd sing down the hall to my room, where I'd pretend to sleep, and sometimes she'd sit down heavily on the end of the bed and feign surprise that I was there. "Still in bed, missy!" she'd say. "You get on out of there or you'll end up being too beautiful, it's the truth." Then she'd get up and cross the room to my bathroom. "I'd best clean your mirror so you can have a look-see at your too-beautiful self," she'd say, or something like it. I wonder if beauty has a dual purpose. No. It has no purpose, and offers no guarantees. In my experience, beauty merely has a dual result: one, lots of people talk to you; two, nice photographs. A wife's got to serve a dual purpose. Michael's doesn't. On the Back Seat The first car I remember was a Studebaker Champion. Corky's family eventually got one too, and theirs was a pale sea green, aquamarine in the bright sunshine, and I envied the color. Ours was tan, however the sun was shining, but it was the first in our neighborhood of Columbia, Missouri. I felt sorry for Mother that she always sat in the front and never got to sit behind Poppa and watch him drive. You can't see that much of people nowadays because the seat backs and headrests come up so high. Also because steering wheels are smaller now. When Poppa bought that car it must have been 1948 or so--yes, it was; I remember because I was fifteen and Mother had allowed me to get my ears pierced when I turned fifteen, and I always made sure I had earrings on to go out in the car. The steering wheel was a smooth wide circle, set up high, and when Poppa drove I could see his head and neck and shoulders and hands, and the Freemason's ring that flashed on his right pinkie. George Junior got that ring when Poppa died. I have the diary he kept during the war, somewhere, and his Purple Heart medal too. He wrote about advancing across French fields with his friends falling and dying to his right and left. I knew about that already because Mother told me. He kept writing in his diary after the war as well, when he was back in Hannibal with his parents and his sisters and wondering where to go from there. He met Mother in church. He didn't mention that in his diary, though. He wrote about her only when he already knew her a little. "I don't know what it is," he put down in his slightly cramped hand. "When I'm with Vivian I have a feeling in my chest that I can't name. It's a tightness, and I have a notion that she can relieve it." Did she? He looked contented enough, despite the limitations of twin beds and the lipstick she always put on before coming downstairs in the morning, marking the end of kisses for the day. She could receive them, of course, and would always proffer a cheek when any of us came home. She'd pat me on the bottom instead. I don't remember her kissing Poppa, though. "I have a feeling in my chest." It was so strange reading those words, knowing that when he wrote them he hadn't declared himself to her yet, knowing that by the time I read them hundreds and thousands of moments had passed between my parents that I had never perceived and would never understand, or even accept. Their relationship seemed to function along the lines of a pattern. To learn that, at least for him, it started with the shortness of breath and a desire for sweet relief, well, I had to think about that. And when I thought about that, standing there three years ago in my dining room next to the box of Poppa's things I'd opened on the table, I got angry. She just hadn't appreciated him. When I think of my young self sitting on the back seat of the Studebaker, watching him drive so elegantly around town while she looked out the window and commented on the houses, I know I was in the right place. I used to put my hand on his shoulder to remind him I was there. Excerpted from Lillian on Life by Alison Jean Lester All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.