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Lily: Real Life, Real Literature

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 01, 2011 | In Reviews

I agreed to read the Lily Trilogy by Sherry Boas with some misgivings. The promotional literature asserts: “The books have a pro-life thread throughout and also deal with other problems perpetuated by the culture of death” including “the breakdown of marriage, promiscuity, euthanasia, sterilization, post-abortion trauma, withholding of medical care, drug abuse and social justice issues.” My inner voice warned me that the author probably believes that a certain preachy moral rectitude is the key to a successful novel.

My inner voice was wrong.

The Lily Trilogy consists of three relatively short novels (160 to 186 pages each) which trace the impact of Lily, a child with Down Syndrome, on the three generations of family members who care for her. The first of the trilogy, Until Lily, finds Lily and her two adopted siblings being taken in by her mother’s sister, Beverly, and raised to adulthood after Lily’s mother dies. Lily’s aunt Beverly, now the caretaker, had hoped for a life completely independent of children. The first person voice in this book is Beverly herself.

The second book, Wherever Lily Goes, explores Lily’s middle years, in which she is cared for by her adopted sister, Terry, who also tells her own story. The third, Life Entwined with Lily’s, follows through and beyond Lily’s final years, when she lives with Terry’s troubled daughter. The narrative voice is again that of the caretaker, Beth.

All three of the women who care for Lily struggle with conflicting desires, and experience both the sacrifices and the rewards of their decisions. They are imperfect caretakers, definitely works in progress spiritually, but in each case Lily’s presence transforms them in unsuspected ways, and brings them to a deeper appreciation of the meaning of life, and of what it means to be good, and to be open to grace.

What makes the novels work is their sheer unaffectedness. By this I mean that these books provide a thoroughly natural, and so thoroughly believable, look at life, aspirations and family through the eyes of three women who have made a commitment to Lily in spite of their own imperfections. The author’s perceptiveness and wit are present on every page, but without diminishing each character’s own persona. The stories of their lives, their relationships—and the spiritual strengths and shortcomings which enhance or restrict them—unfold easily. The writing is altogether natural; nothing is forced and there is no preaching. The reader is drawn in without reservation. Sometimes this reader cried.

Many situations and passages in the book are quite moving, but I prefer to put one passage on display here not because it represents any sort of climax, but because it demonstrates the refreshing concreteness of the novels and their easy flow, through which the author manages to capture many things about life without falling into the trap of writing an essay. It is also a passage conveniently near the end of the third book, making it easy to find and quote. Here, then, chosen (apart from convenience) almost at random, are some of Beth’s reflections after discussing her upbringing with a romantically interesting man who has taken her out to dinner:

I told him I am not complaining about my upbringing, but that wasn’t true. Every eldest child lodges complaints about the inequity of birth order. The oldest child in the family never enjoys the same carefree existence as the youngest. This is because new parents are neurotic lunatics, and seasoned parents are tired lunatics. When you are a new parent, every small and large thing is viewed as a large thing. This is why I was never allowed to eat a donut in the grocery cart. It was too sticky, too sugary, too fatty, too crumbly and it would set a bad precedent for wanting a donut every time we went to the store. Seasoned parents are too tired to tell the child that the donut is too sticky, too sugary, too fatty and too crumbly and will set a bad precedent. So the seasoned parent gives the child the donut and enjoys a messy, but peaceful shopping trip. I got the idea of wanting a donut in a shopping cart from another kid I saw enjoying a pink frosted jelly-filled with sprinkles. Her face looked like a battlefield. I couldn’t figure out why her mother didn’t notice that the donut was too sticky, too sugary, too fatty and too crumbly. What I didn’t know at the time was that the little girl had older siblings who were at school, putting her in the proper birth order to get a donut while grocery shopping.

The books, of course, are not all donuts and sprinkles. Beverly loses her husband largely because of her commitment to her sister’s children, including Lily. Terry’s marriage is already slipping away, but the experience of caring for Lily puts her on the right course to recover it. Beth has deeper wounds than either of her predecessors. Yet she spends her last teen years with Lily in their family home, and she brings Lily to live with her when she establishes herself in her own home. Then, on Beth’s watch, Lily dies. How are their lives entwined? When and how will healing come?

This trilogy is self-published by Sherry Boas through an entity called Caritas Press. There is a website at Sherry and her husband have adopted four children, including one with Down Syndrome. Based on considerable experience, then, the author warns that, while you do not have to be Catholic to enjoy the books, you probably cannot be artificially closed to authentic life and love. It is perhaps typical that a prominent Catholic bookseller, Aquinas and More, first told Sherry they did not deal with self-published authors or small presses. Then their product manager read the books, changed his mind, and took them on as a favored “staff pick”. I completely understand this sequence.

Another reader who was deeply impressed was Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix. But on Facebook you’ll find that the most deeply moved readers are women. Remember, this is a trilogy about relationships, with family life at their very heart. If you’re a guy who can’t sit through a Jane Austen movie, Lily is not for you. (Now, me, I happen to like Jane Austen.) But if you are a girl in her late teens or an adult woman of any age, trust me: You will be entranced, you will experience the joys and sorrows of the characters, you will cry, and you will not be able to put Lily down.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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