Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley
Ted, a gay man in Los Angeles, is a cute and quirky, a master of wit. He loves his dog, Lily, an equally witty, aging little dachshund. They spend all their time together, talk about boys and movies. Ted hates to be away from Lily, and so when she develops an “octopus” on her head, Ted struggles. The “octopus”, it’s no spoiler (it is hinted at in chapter 1 and is revealed in chapter 2), is a tumor. As Ted goes to his therapist, on dates, to work, and hangs out with his friends, Lily’s illness ails him endlessly.
The writing by first time novelist Steven Rowley is very sweet and very cute if perhaps monotone. It is frustrating to read the same skipping, hair-twirling voice even in more serious moments. Ted, for example, to the very end, can never say “tumor” and refers to it as an “octopus” every single time. This makes reading tedious, even though the style is quick and easily consumed.
Lily and the Octopus has a motive. It’s trying to make you cry. It’s trying to tug at the heartstrings the same way Pixar does, though without any of the mastery (not that one can help that they aren’t Pixar). Maybe this isn’t a damning indictment. After all, all books want you to feel something, think something, imagine something, and so on. Really good books find a way to hide this, mask it or otherwise build up the world in a way that any overt motives can be overlooked, like soft paywalls at The Atlantic. The hard truth is that Lily and the Octopus is just okay and is likely to appeal to people who like gooey, sappy stories already. It could be said to be “on brand” and it’s not really trying to branch out. And that’s okay.
Not to advocate for tragedy porn, but 305 pages dedicated to an old, dying dog isn’t really enough to stir any real feelings. We expect old dogs to die. Maybe if Ted had some real character growth, had changed as a person, had come out of the other side of this with grace and poise and some kind of message, the whole enterprise could have been salvaged.
Lily and the Octopus is inoffensive, glib, quirky and a little sad. It’s not going to knock your socks off, but if you’re coming off a serious Hegel binge and need a pallet cleanser, this book could do.