Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

Sometimes a book cries out, nay screams, to be read.  Thus was the case with Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk.

Early in 2017, the publishers sent me a digital advanced reading copy, then one of my Book Barmy followers wrote me urging me to read it, also Powell’s Bookstore named it one of the best books of 2017, and finally — surprise! A brand new hardback copy arrived from my friend Peter as a New Year’s gift.  And here dear readers — here is the clincher:

I really do think you’ll enjoy it.  It’s beautifully written . . .  witty, pithy, upliftingly sad in a weird way.  Lillian is someone you want to take to lunch and drink lots of manhattans.  

(the note from Peter, my smart, literate friend and Book Barmy follower.)

 

So I sat myself down, pushed all my other books aside and opened up Lillian Boxfish. And Peter was right, because by page 15, Lillian had become one of my favorite characters… But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s start again shall we?

It’s New Year’s Eve 1984 and 85-year-old Lillian Boxfish is about to take a walk — a long walk. But first, she applies Helena Rubinstein’s Orange Fire lipstick (long ago discontinued-she stocked up), dons her beautiful, forty-year-old fur coat (still a classic) and a pulls on a pair of boots (sensible but stylish).  Lillian then takes to the streets of New York, she has planned a long walk, an adventure really, to mark the end of the year — Domenico’s for a do-over on a dinner that ended badly years ago.

She leaves her beloved Murray Hill apartment, where she has lived alone for most of her life,

Alone, but not lonely; in the state of being solitary but not the condition of wishing myself otherwise. Solitude enrobed me like a long, warm coat.

That is the crux of this character-driven novel.  Lillian walks (and walks, and walks) through New York City while reflecting on her life. The novel shifts seamlessly between past and present tense unified by Lillian’s witty voice.

Lillian recalls her days as an advertising copywriter and the inner-workings of Macy’s in the 1930’s. Fascinating, as she became one of the highest paid women in advertising.  She specialized in humorous jingles and dabbles with poetry on the side.  But, she couldn’t avoid the challenges of a career woman in a man’s world.

After falling in love and marrying her true love, Max, she becomes pregnant and Macy’s management, like all male-dominated corporations at the time, forces her to quit her career.  Lillian does her best to adapt to the stifling role of housewife and mother to their son Johnny, she has some of her poetry published, and does some freelance advertising work — but soon the marriage starts to crumble and so does Lillian.

All these bittersweet reminiscences take place while Lillian continues her walk in late night New York.  Her observations of New York City are a tribute to her love for the city throughout her life.  There is danger  in the air as she walks — this is just after the subway vigilante killings — and everyone she meets is concerned for her safety.  But our Lillian cares not.  She wants, no needs, to walk. She is strong and fit, still walking miles around the city most days. She especially needs to walk this last night of 1984 ~~she even has a name for it  ~~ Solvitur ambulando: It is solved by walking.

As we walk with Lillian we are part of her musings ~~

On the changes in advertising:

Given that the majority of communication to which we are subjected in a day consists of advertising, if nearly all of that advertising insists on regarding us as pampered children, what does that do to us?

And how fame has doomed true character:

People who command respect are never as widely known as people who command attention.

But Lillian is not a grumbler, she has core values worth emulating:

…my true religion is actually civility.  Please note that I do not call my faith ‘politeness’.  That’s part of it, yes, but I say ‘civility’ because I believe that good manners are essential to the preservation of humanity — one’s own and others’ — but only to the extend that civility is honest and reasonable, not merely the mindless handmaiden of propriety.

The author, Ms. Rooney has given us a great gift with Lillian Boxfish.  She has passion for life, despite the cruel blows life dealt her.

The point of living in this world is just to stay interested.

I bet you’re thinking  — please, not another grumpy, yet cute, curmudgeon who imparts wisdom and kindness.  Trust me, there is nothing cute about Lillian Boxfish. She is a sassy, independent woman who has paid her dues, can often get depressed, but overcomes her life disappointments with classy elegance and a superior wit.

And, like Peter, I would give anything to meet up with Lillian for drinks – preferably at Domenico’s .

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk is exquisitely written and the author has a  superb vocabulary*.    This novel now has a permanent home on my bookshelf.  And it should be on yours too.

I plan to re-read it, if only to revel in how wonderful really good writing can be.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

*Pro-tip: I switched to my Kindle copy just so I could easily look up some unknown vocabulary.  But I also referred back to my beautiful hardback edition which includes a map of her walk. Bonus!

Ms. Rooney based Lillian Boxfish on the life of Margaret Fishback, who was the highest paid female advertising copywriter, in the 1930’s.  And it turns out all of the jingles quoted in the novel were actual advertising copy written by Ms. Fishback.

 

A digital review copy was provided by St. Martins Press via Netgalley. (sorry for taking so long to review it.)

Thanks to Peter for the hardback edition.

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