Review: Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by K. Rooney

screen-shot-2017-01-13-at-8-51-33-pmI am lucky to say I have several friends ranging in ages twenty to thirty years my senior. I find comfort in discussing life with those who have already surpassed my ethereal time period in it (ironic considering the first seventeen years of my life were quite the opposite). It is also true that the passage of decades usually leaves their wisdom and advice somewhat subdued; often, most don’t remember precisely the pricks of career and familial struggle and subjugation.

But some do, which is one of the reasons readers’ (and my own) attraction to Lillian Boxfish will feel so strong, once read. She is a woman of national acclaim, a first in her field of copywriting in the 1930s, and she’s lived her life quite fully. She is smart as a whip, with a wit so sharp she could cut you a criticism and leave you thanking her for want of a bandage. As readers walk the streets of Manhattan with her on the eve of 1985, they see not only Boxfish—both her own foibles and fallacies—but also her city’s, as she unforgettably traipses away the end of 1984.

To read more about Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, set to be published this Tuesday, Jan. 17th, by St. Martin’s Press, continue.

Lillian Boxfish’s story is one of many today: she’s worked herself up the career ladder to the highest platform, she’s loved and lost, and she’s been a mother to a successful young man. However, Boxfish climbed and loved and reared in the 1930s and 40s, throughout the worst economical years (heretofore, of course) of US history, when women were still largely seen as subordinate to males. As she walks the streets of Manhattan, pointing out famous restaurants, landmarks, and businesses, she shares vignettes over eight decades of New York living.

The concept of the narrative is simple: Boxfish walks the city and uses her stops as a springboard for her life story, a kind of physical place association. However, this simple concept (even the title of the book itself) is proof that appearances can be deceiving, as readers learn more and more about Boxfish’s life as they continue to read. The plot is circuitous not only with symbol (Phoebes*, Oreos, rap), but also literally in her walk itself. She circles around until she’s reflected, repeated, and retold her life events—her story—the way she wants it told. This mirrors life itself, but also the human ability to remember and form schema, a kind of advanced stream-of-consciousness writing circumnavigated around location (well done, Rooney).

While I find some of Boxfish’s interactions with city folk disingenuous, I enjoy the artistic choice to include it, as it shows Boxfish’s chutzpah and temerarious personality. NYC in the 1980s was not the most glamorous time, but even Boxfish—having spent over fifty years in the city—does not denigrate her disparate neighbors.

So many careers and fortunes are made by expecting the least and the worst of people. And yet people are rarely so disappointing. The city has taught me that. (Ch. 24 – A Secret)

Some may feel there is too much forced into the narrative, a consequence not only of the magnitude of events during the 80s (especially NYC) but also to show Boxfish’s nature. As readers walk with Boxfish, they’re introduced to the Subway Vigilante, gentrification, small business owners, AIDS, veteran affairs, shifts in advertising, technology, etc. etc. It’s a lot, but it’s also true of life, true of the city. All of these interactions and subjects provide a solid grounding of characterization for Boxfish, helping illustrate in one walk the lifetime of a woman. (Take it all in, readers! It helps paint all the colors of the picture!)

If read solely for the vocabulary, readers’ time will be well spent. In addition, the wit, humor, and spunk of Boxfish will set everyone to chatting up the next 60+ stranger they see… just to hear their story. Considering Boxfish’s character was based loosely on the real life of Margaret Fishback, it would be wise to chat up everyone you see, just as Lillian does throughout her walk. One just never knows when he or she may meet an old lady in a mink coat that once challenged the status quo and broke wage barriers for women for decades of her life, publishing well-acclaimed books of poetry along the way… and now even you, dear reader, might too.

*If someone wants to have a chat session about how Phoebe plays a role in this narrative, please message me. I am fascinated by the frame: Phoebe on the postcards (from her adulatory aunt Sophie), the birds on her walk at Silver Hill, and her cat. Phoebe, of course, originally the name of Artemis, Greek goddess of the moon.

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