When I got my copy of Steven Rowley’s “Lily and the Octopus,” I knew Lily was a dachshund, but I wondered about the octopus. My beloved dog, Otto, had a yellow rubber octopus that wore a green derby. It was his favorite toy to gnaw on.
But that’s not the kind of octopus in this book.
What Rowley euphemistically calls “the octopus” doesn’t make anyone happy: It can be either benign or malignant — and 12-year-old Lily has one. I’m not giving anything away when I say that generally a 12-year-old dachshund with cancer isn’t going to get better.
Dying dogs aren’t my favorite topic. They’re not even in my top 10. But reading this heart-wrenching but ultimately breathtaking novel was a very profound experience for me. I’ve outlived dozens of pets, and all that grieving has taught me that if you want to continue to love and be loved by animals, you’ve got to learn to manage the pain of that loss — loss that is dramatically different from people-mourning. And this is what Rowley addresses so brilliantly.
Lily’s owner, Ted, is a single man. There are flashbacks to Ted’s last rocky human relationship, but mostly we learn that Lily completes him. Thursday nights they talk about cute boys, Sunday nights they eat pizza and Friday nights they play Monopoly. And Lily talks, too. Her words come out in enthusiastic flurries, with every sentence in all caps and every word followed by an exclamation point, as when they’re eating ice cream together: “WHAT! IS! THIS! CLOUD! THAT! YOU’RE! LICKING! I! LOVE! TO! LICK! THINGS! WOULD! I! LIKE! TO! LICK! THAT!
Only when Ted starts to lose Lily does he see that, while he’s indeed loved her more than anything, he’s also used her to keep himself out of the other parts of life: romance, family, work and even sobriety.
There are many things dog people will recognize here — and humor too, from Ted’s list of Lily’s nicknames to his guilt for accidentally hurting her. When he and Lily are out on the beach, he watches her running and joyous: “Her floppy ears bound upward with each gallop, sometimes floating there in the wind as if someone has put them on pause. When she comes back to me, I know they will be flipped backward, pinned to her head and the back of her neck. I spend half my life restoring that dog’s ears to their factory setting.”
The book takes a turn into magical realism when Ted sets out to kill the octopus that’s threatening Lily’s life, but there’s useful reality in how he deals with loss. As Lily might say, “YOU! MUST! READ! THIS! BOOK!”
Julie Klam is working on a book about celebrity.
On June 14 at 6:30 p.m. Steven Rowley will read from “Lily and the Octopus” at Kramerbooks, 1517 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington. Call 202-387-1400.
By Steven Rowley
Simon & Schuster. 305 pp. $25.99