by Kathleen Rooney
New York City, New Year’s Eve, 1984. A woman named Lillian Boxfish, about the same age as the century, has no particular place to be. Dressed in her favourite mink coat, she embarks on a miles-long stroll around lower Manhattan. The novel switches between Lillian’s encounters with ordinary New Yorkers and her memories of six eventful decades living in the city.
Based on the life of the copywriter and poet Margaret Fishback, author Kathleen Rooney begins with Lillian’s stint at Macy’s department store, where she’s one of the first and highest paid women in advertising. Rooney’s lively prose is peppered with witty poems written by the real life Fishback. The crackling writing brings the Jazz Age to life: from the wood-paneled walls and elegant elevators of Macy’s, to sparkling Prohibition-era cocktail parties.
Lillian is in her element as a career woman, and becomes a published poet. Eventually the self-proclaimed “single girl” falls for a charming Italian-American, and she’s forced to give up her career as she becomes a wife and mother. As Lillian’s memories turn to her middle years, life no longer seems as “bright as a penny” and she stumbles under the weight of personal problems.
Although 1980s NYC is beset by a crime wave , the elderly Lillian has clearly regained her resilience. She is undeterred when she sets out on New Year’s Eve, having always been energized by long walks through the city. Lillian meets a limo driver who’s baffled by her refusal to take a ride, a security guard haunted by his tour in Vietnam, a convenience store clerk with dreams of making it big, a young man traumatized by the AIDS epidemic, a barman, a maître d’, and even three muggers. Among the many stops and landmarks mentioned along the way, Lillian visits the famous Delmonico’s restaurant where she once experienced a devastating break-up. Lillian orders Delmonico’s legendary steak, determined to enjoy it more than the last time she was there.
Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk is a novel packed with charm, with a firecracker of a main character. It is a love letter to New York City , a meditation on the things that sustain us as we age, and an homage to pioneering career women. Like a meal at Delmonico’s, this is a novel to be savoured.