So I’m reading a really amazing book right now called Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley, and I’m enjoying it enough that I really want to recommend it to my friends and family. The only problem is that the plot largely centers around this one guy’s relationship with his dog Lily, and of course, as with waaay to many dog books, Lily is dying. Specifically, she’s dying of a tumor on her head that looks like an octopus. Yeah, turns out that cute and whimsical sounding title is a warning of just how much heartbreak you’re in for if you try and read this book.
I had someone at work recommend this book to me first, and I didn’t want to read it right away myself. “What? A dog slowly dying of a painful medical condition? Her owner is a single 40 something man that could very easily be undone by her passing? Yeah, sign me up!” After I left work, I politely put the book very far down in the massive stack of recommendations people give me.
Still, something about the story (spoiler, it was the dog. I’m always a sucker for dogs, even terminally ill ones) drew my interest enough that, when I saw it was available at the library, I checked it out and mentally prepared myself to cry a whole lot.
I was pleasantly surprised though. I didn’t feel emotionally baited to ball my eyes out every ten minutes while reading. Rowley writes about a man trying to save his dog an illness he barely understands, something I could relate to on an all too personal level. I thought this personal connection would be the thing that made this book impossible to read, but instead, that connection is what made me connect to the story so readily and actually feel uplifted.
Ted, the human protagonist, definitely faces down one of the most tragic things that could possibly happen to him in this book, but he does so not only with an unflinching determination to fight it to the end, and no small amount of humor and imagination too. I saw a whole lot of myself in Ted. I may not be an aging gay man living alone in LA with my beloved dachsund, but when Ted described his Monopoly Night with Lily, where he had to play the banker and also handle all of Lily’s transactions for her because she was a dog, I definitely saw more than a bit of myself in him. Of course, I never played Monopoly with my dogs. That would be ridiculous. I hate Monopoly; we usually played Clue instead.
I also recognized that steadfast determination, the visceral need to hang onto Lily no matter what that characterized Ted’s approach to her illness. Lily is twelve years old when the octopus hits, so some people give Ted a bit of side eye and suggest that she is pretty old after all, and maybe it would be in her best interest if… But Ted makes them leave the end of that sentence unspoken because putting her down is simply out of the question.
He recognizes, just like many dog owners, that keeping Lily alive could turn into something just as brutal, if not more so, than killing her if he does not make the right decisions, if he doesn’t work hard to make sure she has the best quality of life possible. These parts reintroduced the same feeling of panicked exhaustion I had when my family had to make the same decisions.
Perhaps because I could identify so strongly with Ted, I never felt like the book was trying to take advantage of my emotions or manipulate my tear ducts in a way some other tragic books have. I will definitely not say I didn’t cry while reading this book, but the humor, the magical realism, and for me, what turned out to be a very relatable protagonist made the journey feel like more than another doggie sob story.
If some cruel psychopath comes up to you and says you have to read a book about a dying dog in the near future, you can go ahead and laugh in their faces, because now you’ve got the perfect way out of that situation. Happy sad reading!