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Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

Review

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

As the calendar prepares to flip over to 1985, Lillian Boxfish is, by pretty much anyone’s definition of the word, old. Whether she was born in 1900 (as she claims publicly) or 1899 (as her birth certificate states), Lillian is unquestionably a denizen of the 20th century, and of her beloved adopted hometown of New York.

In the waning hours of New Year’s Eve, Lillian, having just learned that her ex-husband’s (much younger) second wife is about to die, nevertheless is committed to carrying out her own personal New Year’s tradition --- on foot, no less --- despite her son Gian’s worries for her safety. “This city may be a rotten egg,” Lillian tells Gian, “but I’ll still be the last one out.” LILLIAN BOXFISH TAKES A WALK, Kathleen Rooney’s debut novel, introduces readers to two different historical Manhattans: New York during the 1920s and ’30s, and a very different (and now only distantly remembered) New York during the ’80s, scene of graffiti, street gangs, and the so-called Subway Vigilante.

"Past and present intermingle in Rooney’s novel, distinguished by a careful shift from past to present tense but always unified by Lillian’s unfailingly witty, reflective voice."

As Lillian walks, fashionable in her fur coat, first to a local Italian restaurant near her Murray Hill apartment and later to the tip of Manhattan, she casts her mind back to her long history in this place --- from her early days as an advertising copywriter for R.H. Macy’s department store (eventually the highest paid female advertising copywriter in the world), to her success as a composer of light verse, to her whirlwind courtship with Gian’s father, a rug buyer at Macy’s, and her eventual disillusionment with romance and marriage.

Past and present intermingle in Rooney’s novel, distinguished by a careful shift from past to present tense but always unified by Lillian’s unfailingly witty, reflective voice. Lillian (who’s based on a real historical figure, Margaret Fishback) acknowledges the relative freedom and independence that she and her best friend Helen experienced, as successful career girls in the 1930s, and bemoans the loss of that lifestyle when, like all women of the time, she was forced to quit the job she loved once she started a family. She also acknowledges just how low her life eventually got, in the wake of her husband’s affair and her own heavy drinking.

“I’m not exaggerating when I say that walking has done no less than save my life,” Lillian tells a new acquaintance near the novel’s end. Her epic New Year’s journey demonstrates that fact palpably, illustrating not only how her daily walks have for decades fostered creativity, maintained health, and nurtured her relationship with the city she loves, but also how walking the city streets results in moments of serendipity, of unexpected connections that help counter isolation, build compassion, and equip even an elderly woman to be a vital member of her community.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 20, 2017

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk
by Kathleen Rooney

  • Publication Date: January 17, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • ISBN-10: 1250113326
  • ISBN-13: 9781250113320