Lillian on Life

Lillian on Life

by Alison Jean Lester

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Overview

"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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780698152656
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/13/2015
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 226,940
File size: 737 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

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.

Read an Excerpt

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.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Praise for Lillian on Life by Alison Jean Lester:

"I absolutely loved Lillian on Life. It was a delight. The style of it so fresh and clever and subversive and there’s something very brave about it, especially for a first novel." —Kate Atkinson, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Life After Life

“Lester’s novel about a tenacious, well-traveled heroine of a certain age is replete with the profound and comical observations of a vivacious spirit.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

“Dazzling…In short vignettes, Lillian looks back, drawing an impressionistic portrait of a bold life full of adventure—erotic and otherwise—in prose spiked with unflinching observations, riotous riffs and poignant reflections.” —The Washington Post

Lillian on Life is a quirky book with a very deep heart and soul. I found it full of life and full of wisdom.” —Erica Jong, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Fear of Flying

"A remarkably confident debut ... Unconventionally plotted, Lillian's tale is filled with lush details and cool observations about the twins of female freedom: contentment and compromise. A slim novel that feels just perfect—each thought measured, each syllable counted, a kind of haiku to an independent woman." —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Illuminating…The novel is a cleverly executed feminist bildungsroman that you could easily share with your mother, sister, friend, or, probably most appropriately, life coach.” —Nylon 

“Debut author Lester brings to life a fascinating protagonist, Lillian, a middle-aged woman with a delightfully honest approach to life, love, and happiness…. 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…. Lester has given readers the grand gift of Lillian’s wisdom, beauty, and candor in this lovely novel.” —Booklist 

“This lively and insightful debut novel 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…. 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.’” —Library Journal
 
“A wry and poignant look at middle age…. A mix of ‘live and let live’ and the dos and don’ts from her midcentury upbringing, the heroine of Lillian on Life slides off the page as real, complicated, and contradictory…. In Lillian, Lester has created a wry, self-conscious, introspective woman with a memorable voice to match. Like a portrait painted over and over, Lillian bears the evidence of many revisions. Her vulnerability is palpable in every story she relates. Each chapter acts like a signpost on Lillian’s journey to find peace with herself.” —Bookpage 
  “I’ll never forget Lillian on Life. Looking backward, she’s brutally honest about her needs, her lovers, her parents. Salinger could have invented her . . . Roth would have loved her . . . and so will you. A rare book, a little raunchy, but very rich and very real.” —Ilene Beckerman, author of Love, Loss and What I Wore

 
“In this remarkably mature first novel, Alison Jean Lester has channeled the worldly yet wistful elegance of Colette to portray an unforgettable heroine. Lillian’s provocative reflections on love, vanity, sexual intimacy, and surviving as an independent woman over half a century are deeply moving.” —Julia Glass, National Book Award–winning author of Three Junes and The Widower’s Tale
 
“What a splendid book! By turns acerbic and warm, urbane and homespun, Lillian on Life is—like its protagonist—charming, funny, and unabashedly smart. But as slender and enjoyable as this book is, it’s much more than simply a lark. Each elegantly compressed chapter leaves us luxuriating in thought: about the snippets of experience so vividly depicted, and about those that have been, with perfect art, left out.” —Leah Hager Cohen, author of The Grief of Others and No Book but the World
 

Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

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.

ABOUT ALISON JEAN LESTER

Alison Jean Lester is an American writer and corporate communication skills coach who lives in Singapore. Born in California in 1966, she has traveled all her life and has variously studied, worked, and raised a family in the United Kingdom, Italy, China, Taiwan, Japan, and Singapore.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Lillian lives in a time of great change. In what ways is she both a traditional woman and a modern one? How does she defy society’s expectations of her? How does she conform to them? In what ways would today’s society perceive her differently now from how society would have perceived her in the 1960s and 1970s?
  2. In the beginning of the novel, Lillian wonders whether “beauty has a dual purpose” (page 7), like wives and K-Y Jelly. What do you feel this dual purpose is? Does that purpose change over the course of the story? Over time? What role—good and bad—does Lillian’s beauty play in her life?
  3. Lillian lives in various European cities—Munich, Paris, London—before New York, where she lives as she tells her story. What significance does each place have in the context of the book? Is traveling important for growing up and/or being independent? Is Lillian an independent person?
  4. Even though Laszlo raped Lillian, why does she agree to meet him when he shows up in London? Does the rape affect her views on sex and men? How does it relate to the out-of-body experience she has with John (page 121)?
  5. When Lillian thinks about her decision to live in Germany for six weeks, she remarks, “The parental presence is eternal” (page 52). How is this reflected in the way this story is told?
  6. What impact does Lillian’s relationship with her father have on her future relationships with men?
  7. When she is in bed after the robbery, Lillian craves the same feeling that Ted gave her—of someone else knowing “exactly who you are” (page 191). What does this say about her choice to be his mistress for twelve years? Why does Ted end up being the love of Lillian’s life? Does she make the right decision? Could she have worked out a lifetime relationship with any of the men in the book?
  8. Lillian doesn’t mention many close female friends. Why do you think that is?
  9. How does Lillian’s relationship with her mother shape her into the person she is? Does Lillian resemble her mother in any way? How did you react to Lillian’s decision to get an abortion (page 146)? How might motherhood have changed Lillian?
  10. A female narrator over the age of fifty is uncommon. How did Lillian’s age influence your reading experience? What does the underrepresentation of female heroines older than fifty say about society’s views on women?
  11. The last line of the novel states: “Actions are whispers compared to dreams.” Do you agree? Why does Lillian choose to close her narrative with these words? What do you think is the book’s central lesson? What is your favorite piece of Lillian “wisdom”?

Customer Reviews

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Lillian on Life 2.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I couldn't stick with this book.  I didn't find the stories humorous at all and was disappointed with Lillian's lack of moral values.  
MisfitGeek More than 1 year ago
This was a very entertaining read. It is a well written and honest reflection of how one’s choices and experiences can shape who we become. It has an addictive quality and is difficult to put down. I read the entire thing in one day.  It is basically a trip down memory lane told by Lillian herself. She led quite an interesting life and she is a dynamic and candid narrator. The seeming randomness of her musings adds a unique and charming quality to the story. It was fascinating to watch her personality develop over time. I would recommend this book as a very unique and engaging read. This is the first book I have read by this author. I would consider reading more of her books.  I received an ARC of this book from Penguin’s First to Read program in exchange for a fair and honest review.
TheAvidReader_KA More than 1 year ago
Lillian on Life by Alison Jean Lester is about Lillian and things that happened in her life. It is like she is reminiscing about her life. The book is organized into many little chapters/sections. Each section is like a short story. Lillian tells about growing up, her career, traveling, her lovers, and her cat, Pandora, as well as the lessons she learned. Lillian on Life is written in the first person. Somehow I just never connected with this book or Lillian. I think it is the way it is written and organized. Lillian’s tales are interesting, but I just did not enjoy this book. I think the right phrase would be “it is just not my cup of tea”! Received a complimentary copy of this book from First to Read in exchange for an honest review.