on Lillian On Life, a novel by Alison Jean Lester (Putnam)

The term “pitch perfect” is applied so liberally in book reviews that one hesitates to use it at all -- a modifier for language awarded credibility because it sounds familiar. But aren’t the most engaging presences strangely themselves, alluring because they reward our aptitude for discovery? And what of voices daring to integrate “pitches” that are usually regarded as antithetical?

It is usually tone, not pitch, that the reviewer is talking about. Tone establishes the relationship between speaker and reader. In fiction and poetry, pitch has more to do with volume, the rise and fall – or the extended flight -- of emphases.

In Lillian On Life, Alison Jean Lester has created a narrator who speaks with a beguiling blend of reticence and candor, decorum and freedom. To my ear, it is a tonally perfect performance, masterly for a first novel. And it is also pitch-perfect, exquisite in the modesty of its excitabilities.

LesterCover.jpgAt the outset of her life story, Lillian tells us that she went to Vassar to study early childhood education. During a semester’s placement at a nursery school, Lillian became attached to the four-year olds. Told that she must move on to a kindergarten placement, she asked her head of department, “Won’t it, I mean, isn’t it hard for them to adjust to new people all the time?” The forced separation from the nursery was more than she could bear; she returned to her hometown of Columbia, Missouri and enrolls at the state university.

This early episode is an autobiographical archetype: Lillian must have access to her preferred object of affection and she will “adjust to new people all the time” if that is what it takes.

What do we know about Lillian? She is 57 at the time of the telling in 1990, born in 1933. In her pumps, she stands at six feet tall. Her hair has turned prematurely white and she lives in New York City, often with someone named Michael in her bed. She adored her father (“Poppa”) and had a contentious relationship with her stern and deprecating mother. She lived abroad for many years, beginning with a secretarial job in Munich after college. Then, to Paris, London, and Manhattan, working in publishing as an administrator. She took lovers in each city. If she has other interests, apparently they are not worth mentioning.

Lester1.jpegAmong the blurbs for this novel, one finds phrases like “feminist bildungsroman,” “share with your life coach,” “subversive,” “survival as an independent woman,” and “unconventional journey.” But this is not a novel for the “why can’t I have it all?” people in the day spa dressing room. Nor is it a novel about “realizing one’s potential.” It is very much a novel of personal limitations, not suffered over but lived through with an idiosyncratic determination. “I wanted to get married and have children,” says Lillian, “That had been the plan. Lovers and wine, cigarettes and skinny black clothes – those were the detritus on the rings circling the planet of my dreams. I was in orbit and I couldn’t find my way across the void. I still am. I still can’t.” Nevertheless, Lillian does not come off as someone continually fighting against things larger than herself. She tells her story with a proprietor’s sense of sole ownership.

Lillian confides through the years with her sister-in-law Judy. Tonally, Lillian speaks in a similar mode to the reader, expecting a sympathetic response yet still compelled to explain herself without pretense, not that she proceeds analytically. But she does tell us that in the late 1960s, in the middle of her most profound relationship, she had sessions with a psychiatrist named Alma:

“Alma smoked while I talked and cried. It’s a shame shrinks can’t smoke in their own offices anymore. The smoke looked like her thoughts. Shrinks who just listen make me nervous. We entered areas of feeling that I worried might overwhelm me completely. Hate, for example. It’s an emotion I continue to avoid. Both in myself and in others, but I like to encourage others to admit to it if they can. I like to watch when they do. I now prefer women who breathe fire when truly provoked to those who sit alone in their bedrooms ands cry. Back then, though, I was still convinced that hate wasn’t allowed, and that crying was the only path to peace.”

Lester2.jpegLillian’s narrative is parceled out into twenty-four short chapters with topical titles (“On the Importance of Big Pockets,” “On Looking the Part,” “On Getting to Sex”) – and each chapter tracks a single episode while often making short digressions or offering a tart opinion or observation. For instance, about men: “”A big man chewing his lip is an attractive, vulnerable being. A small man chewing his lip is a rodent” or “The reason the men in Richard Avedon’s fashion photos look so gorgeous in the seedy parts of Paris is that they’re not from there. They’re visiting, or they’re leaving, having visited.” She likes things just so, and will interrupt her memoir to tell the reader, “A white porcelain soup tureen, even if you never use it, even if it sits for decades on the sideboard, can make you feel clean and calm. Imagine opening it to reveal red pepper soup.” Even her vaginal lubricant (which appears on page 2) is regarded with a certain decorum: "The trick at my age is to keep some K-Y Jelly in an attractive pot on the bedside table."

Wisdom is one of the most difficult things to express in a novel, usually because so much of it is received or formulated in advance. Readers like to be led toward wisdom, not lectured. Lillian On Life represents the result of a life – and therefore, the plot line of recalled affairs continually brings us back to consider Lillian, speaking at age 57 in 1990. There is wisdom here – but it is found in the manner of speech itself, her governed self-regard, her stated pleasures, her tolerance and persistence. The novel is remarkable for its withholdings, or what sound like withholdings during our age of excessive personal revelation.

As Lillian says, “I’ve always wondered why people look so much to action for meaning. When people tell you a story – something that happened to them, something important – don’t ask them what they did. Ask them what they wanted to do. What they want to do is who they are. Actions are whispers compared to dreams.”

[Published January 13, 2014. 240 pages, $25.95 hardcover]

Wow a man paid attention

Congratulations to you, Mr Ron, for responding so well to this novel. I pray it won't be relegated to the "novels for women" shelf. Lillian's story is about how a life follows its own indistinct yet original track. It is also a perfect novel for creative writing classes, a lesson in how to control voice and write with economy and an eye for the telling detail that opens up a world. Thank you.

In Orbit, Across The Void

Perfect pitch
admirable tone
in orbit across the Void

Might tempo also hitch a ride
on the gathering flight of emphasis?