"Lillian Boxfish takes a Walk" by Kathleen Rooney
I need to keep a list of which blogger it is that recommends me which book - someone gave this novel a shout out, I fell in love with the cover and requested it straight away. I also fell in love with Lillian Boxfish too. So whoever it was who brought this book to my attention -thank you so much!
It’s the last day of 1984, and 85-year-old Lillian Boxfish is about to take a walk.
As she traverses a grittier Manhattan, a city anxious after an attack by a still-at-large subway vigilante, she encounters bartenders, bodega clerks, chauffeurs, security guards, bohemians, criminals, children, parents, and parents-to-be—in surprising moments of generosity and grace. While she strolls, Lillian recalls a long and eventful life that included a brief reign as the highest-paid advertising woman in America—a career cut short by marriage, motherhood, divorce, and a breakdown.
Lillian Boxfish is inspired in part by the life and work of the poet and ad woman Margaret Fishback- the real highest-paid female advertising copywriter in the world during the 1930s at R H Macy's.
This is like "Mad Men for Women" - perhaps a parallel series when Peggy takes centre stage and gets to fully show off her talents- "Mad Men" crossed with a more upbeat, less serious Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Bennet. Lillian is wry, witty, sharp, intelligent and fascinating. This is a swift 290 page enjoyable read about a memorable character full of colour, flair and edginess.
"There once was a girl named Phoebe Snow. She wore only white and held tight to a violet corsage, an emblem of modesty. She was not retiring though, and her life spun out as a series of journeys through mountain tunnels carved from poetry. .......No there wasn't. She was just an advertisement."
And so opens the novel and the story of Lillian Boxfish.
Lillian Boxfish who is led to Manhattan and poetry by Phoebe Snow, applying for jobs with a short rhyme which lands her a position at the department store R H Macy's and the start of a successful career in advertising and poetry writing. Determined not to live the life of her mother who married and left behind her education to run an efficient household where ironically, she became a women who was quickly affronted by "anyone not living a life that fit the mould of her own- wifedom, motherhood....." Lillian bravely defies conventions from the outset.
It is the last day of the year and our bold, confident protagonist starts her walk around the city telling us about her career, marriage, family life and other key events in her past. The writing is fluent and well paced so you happily keep up with Lillian, hardly noticing the number of steps you're clocking up as you pound the streets alongside her; listening intently to her amusing, frustrating and interesting anecdotes. Her experiences, both professionally and domestically, offer real insights to the role of women in the 50s. Rooney has created a very natural narrative voice that is engaging- humorous, honest and entertaining rather than informative or educative. Although Rooney clearly did her research thoroughly, this does not feel in any way like a history lesson or an author showing off every shred of detail they have gathered. I would have loved to listen to this as an audio book or on the radio to emphasise the feeling that Lillian was sat in the room talking to me.
Lillian is a really remarkable character. She is hilarious. She is stylish, individual and determined. She is dedicated and focussed. She can talk her way in to and out of any situation. She thinks of herself as fashionably strange.
"If you love something, know that it will leave on a day you are far from ready. I apply my Helena Rubinstein Orange Fire lipstick from one of the tubes I stockpiled in the 1950s. When I heard it would be discontinued, I bought twenty five. That lipstick fascinated me then, it fascinates me still: its colour, its spiral stripes, its waxy fragrance and ineffable taste. No cosmetic has ever suited me better."
She can be fierce and she can be brutal in her assessment of others, but it is so amusingly told, with such a dry and droll voice that you cannot help but grin.
"I tried to twist my anticipatory wince into grin. I had only given Olive that assignment to make her feel better and keep her busy, and I had to resist the urge to hold her attempt with two fingers at arm's length, like something disgusting. Stay gentle Boxfish, I chided myself. Today may be the day she finally figures it out."
But, as all the best comics knows, you can never mistake comedy for happiness, or good cheer for joy. For example, she recognises the inequalities in the workplace and the obstacles in the way of any progression up the career ladder. I really smiled at the way Lillian voices her opinions and how her choice of language always creates effect.
"'Nobody asked these fellows with salaries to reproduce themselves,' I said, 'And were I ever to have a family, you wouldn't let me keep working here. Ladies get the boot the instant they show signs of spawning. Not that that matters to me, since I'd sooner die than join the wife-and-mother brigade.'"
But, inevitably, she does. And the tone of the novel changes.
Marriage and motherhood take Lillian on a traumatic detour, one which is written with searing honesty. Again we are shown the complexity of Lillian's character despite her outward appearance, and these sections about her life with husband Max and the birth of her son are gritty, real and sensitive.
Throughout the novel, Lillian brings us back to 1984 and I found her comments and reflections about the changes in advertising and the art of persuasion really pertinent. She constantly reflects on the absurdity of what she did for a job and how the effect these opportunities at R H Macys and her passion for her job both enhanced and damaged her life.
The book ends with a moment of contemplation.
"We drift- all of us - farther from the fraught spasm of midnight, settling into the fog of another year."
And perhaps one final inspirational quote from Ms Boxfish:
"My true religion is actually civility"
"Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk" publishes on the 17th January.
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