Review: Alison Jean Lester’s ‘Lillian on Life’

LILLIAN ON LIFE. Alison Jean Lester. Putnam. 240 page. $25.95.
LILLIAN ON LIFE. Alison Jean Lester. Putnam. 240 page. $25.95.

The Lillian of Alison Jean Lester’s dazzling first novel, Lillian on Life, is a single woman of a certain age. “A woman has so many things to hide after fifty,” she says, and yet at 57, she’s far from demure. In the book’s opening pages, she emerges from bed after a tryst with a married man, confessing to some of the ways she fools him into thinking she’s more like her younger self, a statuesque stunner.

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.

Young Lillian leaves a small town in Missouri in the ’30s. A chance to work for a writer propels her to Germany. The first of several jobs as a personal assistant leads to others across Europe — and into the arms of intriguing men. Some of Lillian’s affairs are short-lived; others last years. Ted, Michael, Dave, Laszlo, John, Alec, Nigel, Alfred, Willis and Pyam and others appear throughout the story, each stealing her heart, for a while.

Lillian is a free spirit who doesn’t worry about “what someone might call moral things,” such as her penchant for married men. “So many people say that everything happens for a reason,” she muses. “I’ve always felt that things happen because the things before them happen, that’s all.” Part Colette, part Erica Jong, Lillian is quick-witted and sharp: “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.”

Reflecting on the forces that shaped her, Lillian describes a cold and distant mother who, when Lillian brings home a potential husband, comments: “It would be kind of him to marry you.” Her father, on the other hand, comes off as warm and handsome, “a charming Midwestern man.” In college at Vassar, Lillian is besotted by the toddlers she works with in her early-education course — “Their hands gave me goosebumps” — but as much as she wants a child, she never has one of her own.

As time passes, lovers die and Lillian’s parents pass away. “I feel like I’m dissolving. Or dispersing,” Lillian says. “I’m a dandelion and my fluff is gone, carried away on the slipstream of the people who’ve left.” But readers who have spent the last 200 pages getting in the company of this endearingly formidable woman know she will get her fluff — as well as her moxie — back.

Eugenia Zukerman reviewed this book for The Washington Post.