**This review is in two parts. Part 1 was written seconds after finishing the book. Part 2 was written 2 days later, when my despair had abated and reason and sense came back to me. This ended up being kind of long, but I needed to write it because this book needs a warning label and this two part review is it. Please enjoy both.**
Sometimes, when my depression wraps around my face like a fashionable scarf in the early darkness of the evening while I am trying to sleep, it plays movies for me. One of the worst ones is a collection of short stories of all the different ways I would have to say goodbye to my cat, Chloe. I’m choking back tears right now just writing this. It’s a loss I’m not ready to bear and I’m not sure how I will bear it when it happens someday – I have time, she’s in excellent health – so when I read the first chapter of this book my depression slid silkily around my neck, squeezed a bit and whispered “are you ssssuuurrrre?”
Some good writing requires bravery to read. Your own anxieties, fears, and sorrow might make you miss out on a fantastic piece of writing. The book holds them up for you and you take deep breaths and hope that, like a rollercoaster or a haunted house, you might come out on the other side breathless and thankful and begging for another go. This book, for better or for worse, is an experience I do not want to have again.
Steven Rowley captures my trepidation at leaving my pets anywhere with anyone else, no matter how trustworthy. Of making a decision in a vet’s office that weighs expense with life. The excitement when they do something they just do normally but you need them to do it and you call them the smartest little bean in the whole wide world. He also reminded me to listen when they are ready, even if I am not.
Rowley tortured me in the last 50 pages or so. I literally howled with sorrow (and yes, I am using literally correctly here and not for dramatic effect), my shirt was soaked with tears. He opened the door to an event that I have never witnessed but will need to someday, and I am not entirely sure that I am thankful for it. The writing is so vivid it was like I was there. I knew this book would be sad when I read the jacket. I was not prepared for it to leave me broken. It was like when I rented Marley and Me thinking it would be a cute dog movie. WHY DOGE MUCH SAD VERY CRYING WOW.
Speaking of the book jacket, it also says:
“Remember the last book you told someone they had to read? Lily and the Octopus is the next one.”
I’m not sure I agree. Reading this book was a choice I made, and you are free to make your own decision. This is a beautiful book about a love as deep as the ocean, as true as the heart of a knight, but it is deep sadness in book form. I will say that this is a book that you should read, but only if you are ready to handle where it will take you. If you have recently lost a pet, if the loss of a pet is raw in any way in your system, you may want to wait on this one. It is real. It does not beat around the bush. Lily and the Octopus is an amazing book that is not fucking around.
I read this book two days ago. The day I read it it was like I had held his dog in my hands and watched it pass away. The writing was vivid and I loved the idea of softening cancer by calling it an octopus and creating a battle in which the man tries to save his dog. But then it dawned on me: this was a terrible book, and I was furious with the author for abusing me with his words.
Let me explain.
First, I am uncomfortable with the idea that a man in his forties would be so out of touch with reality that he would hallucinate an octopus on the head of his dog and talk to it. I mean, I talk to my dogs and hope that they understand, but our main character has an…unhealthy relationship with his dog. The author tries to disguise this with things all pet owners can relate to, but it goes deeper in this book.
Secondly, now that I have calmed down, I’m having trouble thinking back and knowing what was real and what wasn’t. I mean, obviously the boat trip to hunt the octopus was a dream, but did he actually go buy an octopus at a fish market and bring it home to slice up in front of the tumor to scare it off his dog’s head? Is this book about grief and love or mental illness? I mean, I’m willing to get behind it either way but I feel like we need to decide. Granted grief can feel like mental instability, but the actions taken in this book are just so bizarre.
Third, and probably most importantly, is the delivery of the story. When I was trying to think of how to critique this part I kept thinking back to the movie Big Fish.
Big Fish was a movie about a father in failing health and his son. Their relationship is strained because the son feels like all the stories his father tells about his life are made up and he feels like if his father loved him he would tell him the truth. In true Tim Burton style we are led through a trippy history as the son researches his dad’s claims and in the end we discover that truth is at the center and his dad’s perceptions are what make the truth fantastical. If you are going to write a story about an octopus that you fight for your dog’s life you can’t switch to a graphically detailed description of the final trip to the vet where we can hear the movement of the syringes as they inject the drugs into the dog. This was just terribly done. It was jarring. It was traumatizing. When I finished the book I had feelings that would generally prompt me to call a crisis hotline. I had been assaulted. I was sad at the end of the movie Big Fish, but the story was told so beautifully that my sadness did not feel violent, it felt finalized, natural. I felt sad at the end of this book not only because the dog died, but because we had lost the battle with the octopus. It wasn’t just a natural thing that dogs get sick, it was a failure to exact revenge, a failure to save a loved one.
Lastly, the graphic description of watching our favorite thing in the world slip slowly away from us wasn’t even the worst part of this fucking book. The worst part of this fucking book is this veiled under plot that involves the main character’s dating and family life. We see him rush to San Francisco to attend his sister’s elopement while Lily undergoes spinal surgery ($6,0000!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! <–there aren’t enough exclamation points for this). We learn about a past relationship that ended and he still pines for a bit(?). We are meant to kind of assume that this is because he is gay, but he actually has some pretty supportive friends and is dating pretty consistently. The inclusion of his interaction with humans is so unnecessary that if I hadn’t been violently sobbing I would have been screaming “WHO CARES ABOUT YOU GOING HOME TO VISIT YOUR MOM.”
It is unfair to compare this book to “The Art of Racing in the Rain” by Garth Stein.
Garth Stein himself shouldn’t have commented on Rowley’s book at all. I read Stein’s book and it made me sad but without ripping my heart out and tearing it into little pieces and then throwing it in the ocean. It pays homage to the sorrow attached to losing a pet but it then gives you comfort and hope. So SKIP THIS BOOK. PLEASE. TAKE MY ADVICE AND DON’T LET CURIOSITY TEMPT YOU. Go read The Art of Racing in the Rain instead, because it’s what this book wanted to be but failed miserably at achieving.