Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2017
284 Pages, $25.99
I was five years old when I first laid eyes on her, on a postcard, sent to me by my dearest aunt, Sadie Boxfish, my father’s youngest sister, daring and unmarried and living in Manhattan.
With these words, we are introduced to Lillian Boxfish. Although a work of fiction, the book is based on the life of a real woman. Not just any woman, the highest paid female in advertising. I would even venture to say a woman ahead of her time.
The story begins in New York, on New Years Eve in 1984, as Lillian talks to her son on the telephone and we learn that Lillian, now eighty-three or eighty-four years old…. we’re really not sure because she has never told anyone her real age and that has actually started to confuse her. During that conversation we learn that Lillian moved to New York as soon as she was old enough to look for a job. We learn that Lillian applied for fifteen jobs and received an offer at H. R. Macy’s. a job she accepted and at which she excelled.
A job which in some ways saved my life and in other ways ruined it.
We learn of an ex-husband, whom Lillian loved more than life itself and for whom she gave up her career as it was expected of women in those days. A husband who eventually remarried. We learn some of the details of her life in New York, her path to becoming the best paid advertising woman, her path to becoming a published author and eventually the end of her career.
Lillian was funny and a force to be reckoned with. She pulled no punches. She knew what she wanted and she found a way to get it. At one point when she’s in her boss’ office asking for a raise having been touted as the “best paid woman in advertising,” and he tells her that “…it’s been decided that we really can’t do it.” Instead of giving up she confronts him and says:
The passive voice, Chip? The use of the passive voice to disguise one’s role in the making of a decision is imprecise and obfuscatory. You’re a better ad man that that. Active verbs! Why not say “I refuse to pay you fairly.”
This scene in the book brought Lillian closer to me. She was fighting a battle which continues to be fought today. In 2017. Will our children still be fighting the same battle?
The entire story takes place on one single night while Lillian walks to Delmonicos on New Years Eve for her traditional New Years Eve Dinner. “Veal rollatini with green noodles” and then back home again. Through her walk the reader is introduced to a few characters she meets on the street, the sights and sounds of the city so familiar to those of us to inhabit it or work in it day in and day out. The reader comes face to face with the changes which take place both in the city and and Lillian as they both mature. For me, these were the aspects of the book that made me fall in love with the character .
In 1984, the Island of Manhattan was going through a particularly bad time. The crime rate was at its highest and to give the reader some perspective the author tells the story of the Subway Vigilante. A man who moved around the city subway, murdering members of a particular type.
The city I inhabit now is not the city that I moved to in 1926. It has become a mean-spirited action movie complete with repulsive plot twists and preposterous dialogue.
For someone like me, who works in Manhattan and therefore, practically live in Manhattan, I was extremely curious about what all these places looked like in the 1930s and 1984. I found myself making mental notes on what places I want to go back and visit. I’m eager to find all the beauty Lillian saw through her eyes in the New York of her youth as well as all the corruption and misery she found in 1984. I want to compare it to what it is today. A bustling city that, although not for everyone, it’s beautiful, busy and full of life. However, through Lillian’s eyes I was able to see the difference between what it was and what it is. She is not the first person calling the Penn Station building as it currently stands — a monstrosity.
I found that the author’s writing to be beautiful, her narrative to be flowy and descriptive. Kathleen Rooney is a poet and as expected her prose, enchanting and captivating. Through her words, I was able put on Lillian’s shoes as she looked at the world around her. Like when Lilly is talking to her cat, or contemplating buying a gift for that one New Years Eve party she decided to attend at the last minute.
There were, however, some passages in the book that felt as if they didn’t belong. They were a bit forced. These were very few but in a way they spoiled the flow of the book. As a New Yorker and a female I would never stop and chat with someone who happened to have honked the car horn. Not only would I not give that person the time of day but I would probably run away from the scene. This, in 2017. I don’t even want to imagine what I would have done in 1984, walking late at night in Midtown or Downtown.
Throughout the book we find Lillian maturing in parallel with the City. To me it felt as though they both began their walk through life as innocent, inexperienced and with a hunger to achieve huge heights. I couldn’t help but think that perhaps the author was telling a story about Lillian’s and Manhattan’s walk of life. We find that both mature, become resigned to circumstances, turn bitter and eventually learn to accept that “stuff happens” and in the process get stronger and more beautiful.
I think Lillian did a good job at navigating her life without a map. She was funny and sure of herself even when she didn’t think she was.
A question remains: if I were not from Lillian’s beloved New York, would this book have as much of an impact on me? hmmmm, I’m not certain. I cannot deny that I loved the story, enjoyed the concept and fell in love with Lillian. In the process discovered a new love for a city. All great things. The book was entertaining and I will also admit that I cannot wait for Kathleen’s next one (which I’m told is in the works).
I gave the book 4 stars only because I really had trouble getting past some of the scenes with strangers as being believable. They interrupted the flow of the narrative and I removed me from the cozy feeling of following Lillian around the city.
I have recommended this book to many people and would expect that they will enjoy it as much as I did.
Thanks for making it this far