Book Review: Lillian on Life


Lillian on Life, by Alison Jean Lester, offers an insight into the life of a woman of a certain age. Reading it I felt as though I were sitting down with a newly introduced acquaintance who, as the conversation progressed, proved to be intelligent, articulate, perceptive and to have lived a fascinating if somewhat exotic life. It is not, however, the life that the protagonist has lived but rather the observations on her experiences and the people she encountered which make this book so satisfying to read.

Lillian was born in Columbia, Missouri in 1933. Her detailed recollections begin from when she was around fifteen years old. She idolised her father but had a more troubled relationship with her mother who always seemed to be trying to alter her daughter to better suit an image that she herself would prefer. An older brother had moved away from the family home when Lillian was twelve. As she recalled her mother’s often dismissive reactions to Lillian’s early achievements it was noted that:

‘There’s nothing as perfect as a talented firstborn son who has gone away.’

Lillian had always imagined that she would grow up, get married and have children. Throughout her life she was never short of boyfriends and then lovers, some of whom were married and some of whom she loved. Events conspired to enable travel and she lived in several European cities before settling in New York. In considering the way her life turned out she opined:

‘So many people say that everything happens for a reason. I’ve always felt that things happen because the things before them happen, that’s all.’

As Lillian recounts her experiences and shares her thoughts it becomes clear that she is not attempting to impress. If anything there is a sadness behind many of the tales, a recognition that had she known how things would turn out she may have acted differently, although she does not dwell upon regrets. Her stories allow the reader to see her life through her eyes with a clarity and understanding that can rarely be articulated so perceptively and succinctly.

The narrative evokes a depth of feeling, a sense of poignancy, alongside the descriptions of events. As she remembers the men she has been involved with and their treatment of her she recognises that sometimes it was easier to accept their patronising ways and then to move on:

‘I was too polite to put up a fight. When you protest too much they give you a look that’s even more condescending than their platitudes.’

Lillian cared about how she looked, about her hair and her dress. She could not understand how some women did not. Lillian enjoyed sex, but also wished to please her sexual partners so would submit to their desires, placing herself outside of her physical body as a way of coping with their invasions. She was scathing of wives who became disinterested in providing such selfless pleasures for their men.

In so many ways the bare facts of Lillian’s way of living would be the antithesis of a women I could admire, and yet in reading this book I grew to like her a great deal. I would love to be able to sit down with her, share a bottle of wine and enjoy more of the intelligent conversation which this book provides. It is a work of fiction yet the quality and easy flow of the writing made her seem real.

Quite unlike other books in its style and scope, I will be recommending Lillian to many other women of my acquaintance. Her passion, achievements and self effacing observations have the potential to entertain and inspire us all.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, John Murray.