Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, by Kathleen Rooney, Hardcover, 287pp, January 2017, St. Martin’s Press
Let me begin by saying this is my first 5-star read of the year and I know there is no way I can possibly do it justice. You must read it. My library copy, here beside me, is thick with sticky-arrows where I wanted to write in the margins or underline one of the many beautiful sentences and passages, thus, I am saving my pennies to buy my own copy so I can return to and revel in it again and again, as I do with the works of Helene Hanff, Dorothy Parker, and the correspondence of William Maxwell with both Eudora Welty and Sylvia Townsend Warner. I loved it — no, LOVE it, present tense.
Of course, I would. These are some of the other things in life I most love: books and great writing, New York City — especially historical New York City, people who are erudite, witty, literate, well-bred, empathetic, kind but not cloying, strong of spine and conscientious of character, who recognize and own their strengths and flaws in equal measure, going about their lives without indulging in whiny, navel-gazing excuse-making.
Lillian would have none of that. Here is the synopsis of the novel found on Kathleen Rooney’s website [click here to go there]:
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.
A love letter to city life—however shiny or sleazy—Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney 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.
In this post 11/9 tragic election world gone mad and cruel and hateful, what a joy to find relief and solace in a well-written, spellbinding novel.
While Lillian’s walk is a journey through the city she loves, it is even more an exploration of the time she has spent on earth as she approaches her life’s end. The tarriances during her odyssey — walk and life — range from touching to tragic, and are always fascinating, insightful, and revealing, and often quite funny. Her descriptions of landmarks in the city are viscerally evocative, transporting the reader through time and space in a way nearly magical. Her language resonates with the patois of a smarter, more sophisticated reality where wit, savvy, good breeding, and literacy were valued, a world in which one was not only allowed to aim higher than the lowest common denominator, but expected to want to do so, to aspire to learnedness and enlightenment. Lillian’s outlook and world are blessed antidote to the deplorable and disastrous embrace in this country of ignorance and pig-headed refusal to evolve being paraded as traditional values and patriotism; Lillian would not tolerate such fatuous asininity, and neither shall I.
There are so many gorgeous passages in Kathleen Rooney’s novel, I am loath to quote one because it will require I make a Sophie’s Choice among so many glorious sentences; too, it will deny you the pleasure of first discovery. Still, I feel I must give you an inkling of the treasures that await you, so, here, near book’s end when Lillian has been asked to appear on a panel about the history and future of advertising.
“I’m afraid I’ve arrived unprepared to defend my approach to writing ads,” I said, “never mind the very concept of professional responsibility, or the practice of simply treating people with respect. Therefore I’m compelled to defer to the au courant experience of my two successors. Please, ladies, resume the accounts of your efforts to unwind the supposed advances of civilization and return us consumers to a state of pliable savagery. Who knows, perhaps some young lady who watches this program will take up where you leave off and find a way to ease us all back into the trees with the orangutans, who I gather are deft hands at the fruit market. With luck and hard work, perhaps we’ll even recover our old gills and quit terrestrial life entirely. Back to the sea! That Florida swampland Mother bought may prove to be a good investment after all. In any event, I wish you both luck in your quest. I will not be keeping track of your progress, however. My interests, such as they are, lie elsewhere. To be clear, it’s not that I no longer want to work in the world that you’re describing. It’s that I no longer want to live in the world you’re describing.”
That paragraph alone pretty much sums up my feelings about the world today. And it is not the only time in Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk when Lillian speaks for me; or, speaks as I wish I could have or had spoken. I have, I think, not aged as well as I might, but, too, not as badly as some people of my acquaintance seem to think. So, if you will indulge me, one more Lillian quote (as translated by the extraordinarily gifted Ms. Rooney):
I think I look all right. But who’s to say? The insouciance of youth doesn’t stay, but shades into “eccentricity,” as people say when they are trying to be kind, until finally you become just another lonely crackpot. But I’ve always been this way.The strangeness just used to seem more fashionable, probably.”
Exactly. The thing I found so very special and marvelous about this book is that Lillian’s mordant and perceptive observations about life, time, culture, relationships, and herself describe better than anything I’ve ever read that space in the soul and mind and consciousness in which each of us lives, that private haven, the solitude of self where we must balance what and who we think we are with the perceptions of others about what and who they think we are, and, too, find a way to fit the largeness of all the possibilities and dreams of our secret, private, unseen souls into the world in which we’ve been thrust, the circumstances we’ve been given, the limitations we face. I don’t know about you, but for me, that has been life’s journey; questioning if what I am seeing and thinking and feeling is “true” when, so often, the rest of the world doesn’t quite see it that way, doesn’t quite get it, doesn’t quite get me.
I got Lillian Boxfish. And, I like to think, she’d get me. And, trust me, you want to know her. Buy this book. Don’t borrow it or library it: BUY IT. You will want to mark pages and make notes and return to it again and again when you are feeling in need of a wise and dear friend.