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.
‘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.