We all know someone elderly and fascinating, with a lifetime of accumulated wisdom and fabulous stories to share. We love to spend time with them because they have so much to teach us, and we say to ourselves, “when I get older, I want to be like that.”
Lillian Boxfish is just such a character. In Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, we get to spend an evening in her presence, walking around her beloved New York City and hearing stories of her life. Lillian is actually based on a real person, Margaret Fishback, who was the highest-paid female advertising copywriter in the world during the 1930’s. Boxfish, like Fishback, works for R.H. Macy’s and writes poetry on the side, which is published in several volumes. She is a minor celebrity of her day, appearing often in the society pages. And she’s an early feminist, a fiercely independent career woman who wants nothing to do with marriage. When we meet her, she’s in the twilight of her years, strolling around Manhattan on a New Year’s Eve in 1984 and looking back on her life with equal parts affection and regret. Her self-sufficiency and strong ego eventually prove to be her downfall.
This book is both an in-depth character exploration and a love letter to New York. Lillian is fascinating, one of a lost breed of sharply witty, sophisticated women. (As I read, I kept visualizing her as Katharine Hepburn.) Reading about New York in the 1980’s is interesting too, because it was not a great time in the history of that city. Crime was rampant and neighborhoods were in decline until Rudy Giuliani’s “cleanup” in the 1990’s. And the descriptions are all the more impressive when you learn that Kathleen Rooney is actually a Chicago resident and visiting professor at DePaul!
This is a great novel to pick up this weekend. It’s a bittersweet, reflective book that might even make you want to spend a little extra time with that older person you so admire.