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Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk | 2020 Reading Challenge

“Can any telling ever be so thorough that there is no more story left to tell? 

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The following are my thoughts, impressions, etc. surrounding this book, which I read as part of my 2020 Reading Challenge. This is not meant to be a formal book review – if you would like to know why, you can read about my intentions with this Challenge here. Now onto Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk by Kathleen Rooney.

This is one of the rereads I set out to complete in April, and although it came down to the wire, I managed to finish it during the fourth month of 2020. I remember how I felt reading it the first time – which I believe was shortly after I received it in my January 2017 Book of the Month Club box – mainly because those feelings didn’t change on this second time around.

But before I get into that, the book synopsis:

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, eighty-five years old but just as sharp and savvy as ever, is on her way to a party. It’s chilly enough 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 more than ten 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.

A love letter to city life, Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk paints a portrait of a remarkable woman across the canvas of a changing America: from the Jazz Age to the onset of the AIDS epidemic, the Great Depression to the birth of hip-hop.

Lillian figures she might as well take her time. For now, after all, the night is still young.

From the very beginning, I was enamored by Kathleen Rooney’s writing style, and of course, the life of our protagonist, Lillian Boxfish. The fictional story Kathleen Rooney tells is, as the synopsis suggests, about both Lillian and New York City, with an emphasis on the former. This type of story appeals to me, because I have always been captivated by The Big Apple like so many people are, and have not grown out of my romantic ideas about it despite my few visits and the unromantic realities of adulthood. And so Lillian Boxfish’s story appeals to me, as it balances glamour and practicality, fiction and non-fiction. Lillian Boxfish is a romantic depiction, but Kathleen Rooney does not go too far with this; her protagonist still feels like she could have actually existed.

And she sort of did. In her Author’s Note, Rooney begins with “The story of Lillian Boxfish is inspired, in part, by the life and work of the poet and ad woman Margaret Fishback, herself the real highest-paid female advertising copywriter in the world during the 1930s, thanks to her brilliant work for R.H. Macy’s.” The details and character specifics are the creations of Kathleen Rooney, but she incorporated the facts so well that it’s nearly impossible to believe they don’t belong to this fictional woman. As Lillian’s life and history plays out, we are also privy to her life in the present, as she walks through the city on New Year’s Eve. The conversations she had and has, her interactions, and her introspection are wonderfully indulgent, and Rooney makes them even more so with a vocabulary that, in another story, would feel pretentious.

I must admit, however, that I find the first half of the novel more captivating than the second half. Getting to know Lillian Boxfish, and getting to know the city through her eyes, are what gives the story its wonder, its airy, elevated feel. By the second half, it feels too much like the story slips closer to reality, and disappearing are its moments of euphoria, its inspirational quotes and realizations. The moment in which Lillian Boxfish steps outside of the second restaurant she visits and knows she is happy would have been a superb ending; even after this second reading I can’t shake the feeling that the novel was 100+ pages too long. After Lillian Boxfish’s moment of declarative  happiness, the book started to feel more serious, almost more like a biography than the mildly wild, humoring work of fiction it was before. It’s odd to realize that Lillian’s night was really just starting then, but I was growing tired of it. What does that say about me?

Regardless of the last half, I still think this is a charming novel. And I have now been reminded to do some research on Margaret Fishback – including looking up her poetry. Fortunately, the Poetry Foundations has a few of her poems on their site. I am also looking forward to reading more of Kathleen Rooney’s work – if you have recommendations let me know!

And if you have thoughts on this book, and/or anything to say about my thoughts on the book, be sure to leave a comment – I would love to have a discussion with you. And for more information about my 2020 Reading Challenge, click here.

Thanks for reading!

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