Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney is a wonderful book about ambition, fulfilment and accepting who you are. I adored it.
What’s it all about?
Here’s the blurb from the publisher:
She took 1930s New York by storm, working her way up writing copy for R.H. Macy’s to become the highest paid advertising woman in the country. It was a job that, she says, “in some ways saved my life, and in other ways ruined it.”
Now it’s the last night of 1984 and Lillian, 85 years old but just as sharp and savvy as ever, is on her way to a party. It’s chilly enough out for her mink coat and Manhattan is grittier now—her son keeps warning her about a subway vigilante on the prowl—but the quick-tongued poetess has never been one to scare easily. On a walk that takes her over 10 miles around the city, she meets bartenders, bodega clerks, security guards, criminals, children, parents, and parents-to-be, while reviewing a life of excitement and adversity, passion and heartbreak, illuminating all the ways New York has changed—and has not.
What’s good about it?
This book is bursting with life and character. Lillian is a tour de force of a protagonist; witty, funny and independent, she lives life to the fullest and, in the most part, on her own terms.
There are echoes in Mad Men as Lillian works her way up the advertising ladder, navigating through misogyny and sexist double standards along the way. Her skill at persuasive writing and wordplay appealed to my marketing brain (it’s my day job) – Lillian’s ability to sell things to people who didn’t even realise they needed them is both impressive and hugely entertaining.
Rooney based Lillian on Margaret Fishbank, the highest paid female advertising executive of the 1930s and a prolific poet. Reading about Lillian’s struggle to assert her authority in a male-dominated industry, having to resign because she is pregnant and struggling to maintain a creative outlet when she becomes a mother is an engaging narrative – and one that reminds this 21st century woman how lucky she is (although we still need some work on the gender pay gap. BBC, I mean you.)
Lillian establishes herself as a great wit, someone who prefers an acerbic rather than saccharine look at life. This comes back to haunt her when she falls in love and marries Max. How can a woman who rejects romantic love fall in love herself? Lillian proves that a level head and marital/maternal status are not mutually exclusive – and she does it in a warm and sublimely sarcastic way.
The narrative structure of the book is really interesting. Rooney stages each chapter in a different time of Lillian’s life, following her from the 1920s to New Year’s Eve in 1984. This works brilliantly to present the changes in Lillian’s circumstances and perspective – the trenchant octagenarian possibly being my favourite.
There are darker tones to the book, too. Lillian’s mental health battles are stark and their treatment – including electric shock therapy and confinement in a sanatorium – seems particularly brutal to a modern reader.
The novel is a love letter to New York city, in fact to city living in general. Lillian’s walks are facilitated by her location in the heart of the city, where everything is within a few paces and the bustle of life is accessible to all. The pulse of life is on the doorstep and anyone who enjoys city life (as I do!) will adore the metropolitan pace of this book.
What’s not so good about it?
I don’t have any constructive criticism.
I think Kathleen Rooney’s writing is precise and refined – each word is chosen with care and the narrative structure allows the novel to flow along at an entertaining pace.
Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk is uplifting, funny and heartwarming. It’s about a woman’s struggle to balance her career and personal life, to survive mental anguish and to come to terms with her place in the world. It’s a timeless tale about finding the life you want – and a lesson in keeping your tongue firming in your cheek while doing so.
Feature pic credit: Newcity Lit