Book Review of “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” by Kathleen Rooney
On the evening of December 31, 1984, Lillian Boxfish set out for her traditional New Year’s Eve dinner at her favorite Italian restaurant. Despite not being hungry after absentmindedly consuming most of a package of Oreo cookies while speaking on the phone with her son, she is determined to walk all the way there, thinking it might bring her appetite back. Walking the familiar streets of New York brings back over 50 years of memories, where once people knew her as the “highest paid advertising woman in the world.” Based on the life story of Margaret Fishback, Kathleen Rooney’s book is a journey of imaginings using grace and elegance, together with humor and tragedy to investigate the life of a woman we otherwise would never have known.
The concept of this book is simply ingenious. On the one hand, we follow Lillian’s paths along the streets of New York from the last hours of 1984 until the first moments of 1985. Her stops along the way include not only her original destination (her traditional New Year’s Eve Italian restaurant), but a list of spontaneous favorite spots that have significance to her – from both her past and her present. While she makes her way, we not only get to experience the strangers she meets, but also the memories from her past that come to mind along the way. In this way, we get an overview of Lillian’s New York life, and what a life that was! Furthermore, Rooney gives Lillian a very liberal outlook on the world, one that is (for the most part) non-judgmental, and accepting of practically everyone, even to the point of possibly putting herself into harm’s way. (Think about it, an 85-year-old woman, walking the streets of New York at night, alone, in 1984-5! How much more vulnerable can you make yourself?)
This is certainly my favorite type of fiction (although usually this happens more with historical fiction, and less with contemporary fiction – of which this is essentially both), shining a light on real people about whom we know little to nothing about, and Rooney’s spotlight was as startlingly bright as it was flattering. To begin with, Rooney’s writing style is so sophisticated and charming that you can’t help but believe that Lillian was not only a talented writer and poet, but that she must have been even more beguiling than Rooney portrays her. Rooney’s use of language is also endearingly witty, and I’m trying to figure out how many words in the thesaurus I’ll need to use to describe this book, because it’s already starting to run out of appropriate adjectives.
As you can see, I’m in love with this book, and that makes it terribly difficult to review without becoming so effusive that my readers get sick of me. So rather than go on and on with piles of compliments that get not only whipped cream but several cherries on top, I’m simply going to say that I cannot recommend this book highly enough, and it deserves more than just a full five stars out of five! (Note to self: where have you been all my reading life, Kathleen Rooney?)
(PS: If you want to read more about the inspiration behind Lillian Boxfish, you can go to Duke University’s Guide to the Margaret Fishback Papers, 1863-1978 and undated, take a look at the Wikipedia page about her, as well as read the official New York Times obituary, which doesn’t say all that much, I’m afraid. However, below you’ll find links to some of her books of verse that I found available on Amazon – just in case you’re interested and have the money for these apparently collectable, long out-of-print volumes.)
“Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” by Kathleen Rooney published by St. Martin’s Press, released January 17, 2017 is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon US, Amazon UK, eBooks, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley.
In case you’re interested, I found the following copies of Fishback’s books of poetry on Amazon (affiliate links) here: