‘Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk’ by Kathleen Rooney

Lillian Boxfish takes a walk

Fiction – Kindle edition; Daunt Books; 302 pages; 2017.

Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk is a rather sweet novel about an 84-year-old lady, once America’s highest paid female advertising copywriter, taking a walk around Manhattan on New Year’s Eve in 1984.

As she takes her evening stroll en-route to a party she’s been invited to, she meets and interacts with ordinary New Yorkers and recalls the highs and lows of her extraordinary life and career.

It’s an easy read and nothing too taxing, the exact kind of story I was looking for while I nursed a sore mouth having undergone some rather invasive oral surgery recently. I simply switched the brain into neutral and enjoyed accompanying Lillian around the streets of New York.

Said to be inspired by the life of Margaret Fishback, who worked at R.H. Macy’s and was the highest-paid female advertising copywriter in the world during the 1930s, the book is as much about one woman’s rise to the top of a male-dominated industry as it is about the changing fortunes of Manhattan, from the Prohibition era in the 1920s to sky-high homicide rates in the 1980s.

Admittedly, I didn’t much warm to Lillian, whose tone of voice is forthright and arrogant (what you might call brimming with chutzpah), but her story is such a fascinating one it hardly seemed to matter. Plus, her tale is laced with plenty of self-deprecating humour and great one liners so it’s a fun read — and the advertising poems dotted throughout give a light-hearted tone to the narrative.

Mind you, there are some heart-rending moments, too, which knocks the self-confidence out of Lillian and lets the reader see her in a new, more human, light.

A quotable story

I had a grand old time highlighting passages that appealed to me: the book is dotted with “wisdoms” and viewpoints that chime with my own. I’m a great believer in walking to clear my head, boost my creativity and find solutions to problems. It seems Lillian is too:

Taking to the pavement always helps me find new routes around whatever problem I’m trying to solve: phrases on signs, overheard conversations, the interplay between the rhythms of my verse and the rhythm of my feet.

And Lillian’s preference for living in the city, as opposed to the suburbs, but liking the ability to go on little escapes could have come out of my mouth:

I always wanted either to be in, or get away from the city, not to just be close to the city. Were I off in the pastoral hills shingling my own roof or riding a horse, well then, what fun. And were I catching the subway for a night at the opera, well then, hooray. But in the suburbs I could enjoy none of those pursuits with ease.

Lillian’s at her most poignant when she reflects on how time moves on and things change.

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.

And:

‘The city is a city,’ I say. ‘But it is also a house. This city is my house. I live in this city, and this part is being remodelled. The ceiling of the highway has been pulled down, and the floor’s been extended, and the water’s farther away. But this is my house. It is still my house.’

I also loved her love of literature — she becomes a published poet alongside her advertising career — but she’s also acutely aware of how quickly fame and success can disappear:

In certain instances, walking alone in Manhattan is actually safer at night. Passing by the Strand, for example, at Twelfth and Broadway. I usually walk past that bookstore with intense ambivalence: delight because I have been frequenting it since the 1930s, when it was over on Fourth Avenue, just one among nearly fifty similar shops; dread because on more than one occasion in the past two decades I have found my own poetry collections derelict on the sidewalk carts, on sale for mere cents, and with no one watching over them because if they get stolen, well, who cares? At night, at least, the carts have been rolled away and there’s no chance I’ll be confronted with evidence of my grim literary fate.

But probably my favourite quote is this:

Among the many unsurprising facts of life that, when taken in aggregate, ultimately spell out the doom of our species is this: People who command respect are never as widely known as people who command attention.

Thanks to blogger Susan at A Life in Books for the recommendation.

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10 thoughts on “‘Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk’ by Kathleen Rooney

  1. This book was recommended by Nick at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath on a recent visit there. It’s probably not a book I would have picked up without the recommendation but like you, I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with Lillian and found it immensely readable

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    • I wouldn’t have picked it up either but when I was in my sick bed and feeling sorry for myself I asked Twitter to suggest books that were like “chewing gum for the brain” and this one came up. It was a lovely read, perfect for my mood at the time.

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  2. I’m so glad this hit the spot, Kim. I was amused to hear that it’s being recommended in my favourite local indie as I bought it in Daunt Books. I’ve never walked out of that shop without at least one of the books they’ve published. Hope the mouth is fully recovered.

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    • Thanks so much for the recommendation, Susan. Funnily enough I’ve never read anything published by Daunt and now I see I’ve reviewed two in a row (this one and Sylvia). And yes, the mouth is a lot better thanks. Have to go back in December for check-up and biopsy results, so not out of the ballpark yet…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m so glad you reviewed this, Kim, as it’s a book I’ve glanced at a few times while browsing in bookshops without really knowing if it would suit. My initial fear was that it might be too sugary or ditzy, but your review has convinced me otherwise. Plus, I like those quotes you’ve selected – the tone of voice really appeals. One for the wishlist, I think.

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    • Thanks, Jacqui, definitely not too sugary. It’s ballsy and full of spirit, although the tone of voice didn’t really make me warm to Lillian. She’s an extrovert and I don’t generally warm to those people in real life either.

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