Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Fiction Review: Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

Last week at Booktopia, I got to meet Kathleen Rooney, who wrote the book Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk. This unique title has within its covers a unique novel, the story of an octogenarian's life, as told over the course of a very long walk through Manhattan in a single night.

The novel takes place on New Year's Eve 1984. Lillian Boxfish, who says she is 84 but is really 85, is preparing to go out for dinner, to the same place she goes every New Year's Eve, Grimaldi's, near her apartment. But Lillian isn’t very hungry this evening, and so, after a quick stop at Grimaldi's for tradition's sake, she sets out on a long walk through Manhattan, hoping to work up an appetite. Along the way, she passes landmarks of her long life in New York and remembers various times from the 60+ years she has lived there. Lillian also talks to everyone she meets, in an open way that is envious; she never makes assumptions about people and takes an interest in everyone from cab drivers to security guards.

Lillian is not just any old lady. She was once the highest paid woman in advertising, starting her career in 1926 as an assistant copy-writer for R.H. Macy's, inspired by a series of railroad ads from her girlhood. There, she worked her way up, becoming not only well-paid but also well-known for her clever, witty ads. She also wrote poetry, light verse that conveyed unusual, slightly dark sentiments for a young woman of that time. Along the way, she eventually married (in spite of her reputation as a "sneerer of love"), had a son, and later, grandchildren, and encountered some serious personal challenges.

As Lillian's evening unfolds and she walks, her entire life unfolds in her memories, linking to the places she is seeing and the people she is meeting along the way. It's an ingenious way to tell the story of her long life, with the narrative moving seamlessly from the present to the past and back again. Lillian herself is charming, acerbic, and witty, as here where she describes her poetry editor:

“His expression was sheepish enough to supply a Highland village with wool and milk.”

She is also thoughtful, and her musings often delve into deeper issues than just simply the events of her past, including the difficult periods of her life, friendships, and love. In fact, Kathleen Rooney explained at Booktopia that Lillian is based on a real person, Margaret Fishback. The basic details of her life – her career, her family, her place on the society pages, and even her challenges – form the basis for Lillian, and the author fills in the rest, including Lillian's thoughts and feelings. Rooney even read some of Fishback's light verse aloud at Booktopia for us.

I was completely entranced by this novel - and by Lillian herself - from start to finish. I began reading the book but switched to listening to it on audio, and the narrator was wonderful. It felt like I was listening to Lillian herself tell me about her life, and I could hear her voice in my head for days after finishing. Lillian not only tells the story of her own life but also the story of her beloved New York, from the excitement and shine of the 1920's to signs of decay, the growth of hip-hop music, and the AIDS crisis in the 1980's. It was a captivating journey that I was happy to take by Lillian’s side.

284 pages, St. Martin's Press

This link takes you to Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, VT, where Booktopia was held: 

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk
by Kathleen RooneyHardcover


  1. This sounds like a good one for audio because it would be like you were on the walk with Lilian listening to her narrate her life

    1. Yes, exactly! The narrator really inhabited the character.

  2. I'm hoping to pick up this book over the summer. I don't think I've ever read books set in one night before!

    1. It was definitely a unique way to tell a story!