Ted is a lonely writer in his early 40s, and his longtime companion is his dachshund named Lily. The two spend much of their time together, playing board games, talking about which boys they think are cute (Ted likes Ryan Gosling; Lily likes Ryan Reynolds), and watching movies. One day, Ted notices an octopus on the side of Lily’s head, and the two embark on an adventure to try to defeat the sinister eight-legged creature.
The octopus, of course, is really a tumor, and the book is really about love, loss, grief, and all the stuff in between. Rowley’s debut novel is funny, smart, weird, and blisteringly sad at times (this reviewer ugly cried through much of it), but it’s also a celebration of the unique bond between human and canine, and it’s ultimately a very beautiful tribute to dogs everywhere.
Some readers are going to struggle with one of the novel’s central issues: the “octopus,” which Ted refuses to call by any other name, and the willingness of those around him to also refer to the tumor as an octopus. There are moments where this becomes a little grating, but the novel’s venture into magical realism helps sell it. Even if it didn’t, the book’s strengths far outweigh this sometimes irritating affectation.
Far and away the book’s strongest moments are the ones in which Rowley creates a fully-realized character in that of Lily, a dog who loves her owner as much as he loves her. She’s a lazy little snuggler, a lover of ice cream and turkey (TOFURKEY!), and she’s stubborn, too, in the best ways that dogs can be. She talks to Ted, and she sounds exactly as one would expect a dog to talk.
Rowley is a gifted writer, and this is a strong debut. He’s one to watch, and this excellent novel is one to stay up late reading (and crying). Recommended.
Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowely. Simon & Schuster: 2016. Library copy.