January 2015

A wry and poignant look at middle age

By Alison Jean Lester
Review by
“Beginnings are crystal clear. Endings are too, once they’re final. It’s difficult to tell what part of the middle you’re in, though.”
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“Beginnings are crystal clear. Endings are too, once they’re final. It’s difficult to tell what part of the middle you’re in, though.”

The restlessness of that sentiment sums up Alison Jean Lester’s memorable protagonist quite well. 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.

We meet Lillian—and her insecurities, regrets and triumphs—in late middle age, as she’s solidifying her beliefs about herself and the world. As she mulls over the past decades of her life in episodic chapters, she reveals much—and occasionally conceals more.

In some passages, she straddles the fine line of self-pity; in other instances, she speaks incisively about her experiences of desire, disappointment or loss in ways that seem universal. One memory brings out a wistful softness while the next elicits a hardened life mantra.

Lillian embodies the quest to understand our natures and our lives—both what has happened to us and what we have chosen. The novel captures how our minds trip us up as Lillian meanders through her memories and flashes of poignant feeling in a nonlinear way. Yet for all the wandering, Lester’s narrative flows and holds together as we follow along. We feel Lillian’s disappointments and embarrassments, relate to her naiveté and shake our heads at her justifications. As someone who hears others’ voices rattling in her head long after they are gone, Lillian sifts through her thoughts on her judgmental mother, protective but passive Poppa and her varied lovers.

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.


This article was originally published in the January 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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Lillian on Life

Lillian on Life

By Alison Jean Lester
ISBN 9780399168895

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