The thing with this book is that the author gets you to fall in love with Lily very early on, pretty much like every other character that meets her through the novel.
Lily has a wonderfully transparent look: if you met her, you could probably look into her soul. But contrary to what the back cover of the paperback edition suggests, this is not just a rag to riches story or an epic love affair. Rarely does Lily live “in riches” and her love offers are tainted, mainly due to the era in which she grew up.
The Luminous Life of Lily Aphrodite begins in Berlin, right at the beginning of the 20th century. What makes this book (mildly) painful to read at times, is that as it spans the First World War and ends with the rise of Hitler, you know life is not going to be easy for the characters involved.
There is a sense of tragedy throughout the book- but the charm of the characters, together with the wonderful storytelling, allow you to skim through the sorrow, knowing that every now and then you will feel a sense of warmth and even smile.
Lily is an orphan. A bright, wide-eyed girl who also has a heart of gold. She’s a survivor who charms all those around her to the point of becoming a film-star in the early thirties.
A sense that characters have a life before and after we meet them, makes meeting them a rich experience. Even those characters we meet for the brush of an arm or a brief encounter, have a few lines dedicated to their past or their future, making a whole ear come alive.
As a reminder of the conditions that led to two world wars, this novel is priceless. An episode in which a poor boy is left crying when his horse dies in the middle of the street and is devoured by all those in the vicinity, says it all. Berlin feels bleak, dark, dangerous and a place where perversity in all its forms is the best substitute for a comfortable, nourished life.