“Lily Steps Out”
Rita Plush is a first-time novelist making a bold go of it. In “Lily Steps Out,” Ms. Plush has chosen a story clearly close to home and close to her heart, and she is faithful and engaging in the telling of it. Ms. Plush’s handy way with dialogue and details marks the lively tale of one Lily Gold and her transformation from homemaker to entrepreneur.
At the opening of the novel, Lily Gold finds herself thus:
“Sex . . . Lily thinks, lying next to Leon in their bed. Everything is better after sex. Even her thighs are a little thinner — but for how long? The afterglow will fade soon, and then it will be business as usual for them . . . one with a scar down his chest and one with cellulite dimpling her thighs. Suburban New York housewife married thirty-three years, and what has she got to show for it? Making beds and fixing breakfast.”
The one with the scar down his chest is Leon, Lily’s husband, who has undergone heart surgery and is now retired. Gold and Son Gift Boxes — he was the son — is out of business along with the dreams Leon harbored for developing a new kind of gift box and getting his due, a fair share of the company, from his father. In spite of professional disappointments, Leon had been a good provider for Lily and their son, Larry, now out of the house and getting a start on his own as a salesman.
The one with the cellulite dimpling her thighs is Lily herself, married young and now in her mid-50s. She has had long experience as a wife and mother and has come to an important juncture. She wants and is willing to insist on gaining new experience not tied to the home. She has her wits about her; she’s smart and outspoken and self-confident. And so Lily Gold marches out one day to find a job. She’s drawn to interior decorating and to antiques, and finds work in an antiques shop.
At work, Lily develops a friendship with her boss, Walter. He’s a case. Psychologically unwilling to sell any of the furniture in his store because of a deep and difficult personal connection to it, Walter frustrates Lily. Here Ms. Plush writes toward an investigation of how physical things connect to the psyche, how stuff can represent and embody the internal, but stops short of a probing exploration in favor of attending to the plot at hand. Lily Gold would probably love reading Henry James’s “The Spoils of Poynton,” but things are happening fast, and she’s busy with more practical and immediate reading on antiques and various aspects of home decoration.
She pursues these self-directed studies throughout the novel. Lily is a sharp student. She’s learning and pushing herself, coming into her own. The details in Ms. Plush’s writing include physical description along with well-placed information about furniture and antiques; these details feel like the track upon which the story runs if not the fodder for the emotional territory it describes. Ms. Plush’s details will engage readers with a design/decorating/antiques bent, and these readers are sure to appreciate the ring of quality research and information.
In spite of Lily’s boss’s own challenges on the selling-things front, he supports Lily’s ambition to open a store of her own. The give-and-take between them supplies much of the plot that moves “Lily Steps Out” along, heading surely toward Lily’s growing independence (and narrated in a fast-moving present tense!).
Meanwhile, Leon’s unwillingness to take Lily’s ambitions and need for self-realization seriously causes discord in their marriage. Much of the conflict flares up around finances — particularly fairness, trust, and ethics around a joint bank account and the title to the Gold house. They fight:
He shoves his plate to the side, gives her a fixed stare. “What do you know about business? You think I’m gonna lose my shirt because you want to be someone you’re not?”
“How do you know who I want to be?” The blood spins in her veins. She fights to compose herself.
Yet there seems to be love and attraction between Lily and Leon, and Ms. Plush is not shy about detailing the role of sexuality in the marriage. Lily and Leon have built a life together; they share a social circle and hold much in common, including a rapid-fire style of conversation and a bantering tone. Ms. Plush focuses on the dialogue in the book, and Lily and Leon (and to an extent their son) sound similar the way couples and family members can. But in spite of all Lily and Leon share, growing anger and estrangement take hold, and no one in the Gold house is giving in.
Still, the reader gets the sense that someone may come around, that Lily and Leon do a dance, that perhaps new terms and norms can grow from Lily’s desire for an expanded fulfillment. An optimistic, playful ending reveals “Lily Steps Out” as a story of transition toward the glory of beginning.
Evan Harris is the author of “The Art of Quitting.” She lives in East Hampton with her husband and two sons.
Rita Plush lives in Queens and East Hampton.