I don't often start a review with a quote. Actually, I don't often quote the books that I review. But for this book, that is exactly how I am going to start.
"People who command respect are never as widely known as people who command attention." - Lillian Boxfish (pg 225).
When I read these words in Kathleen Rooney's debut novel Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, I just stopped dead in my tracks. This line, for me, was so powerfully relevant to the times in which we live that it took me a few minutes to get past it. And as I sat thinking about it, I found that this was exactly like all of the little nuggets of wisdom that Ms. Boxfish had been given me as I walked along with her. It made me love this novel even a little more.
a real womsed upon the true life of Margaret Fishback an who achieved so much in her timeLillian Boxfish is an 84 (well 85, but she lies about her age) year old woman who has lived her entire adult live in New York City. Based on the true life of Margaret Fishback a woman who achieved so much in her time, our main character is self made. Lillian came to New York because she hated living in Washington D.C., with a desire to make something of her life that did not include only getting married and having children. She works hard and becomes the highest paid female copywriter editor of her time and also enjoys success as a poet (in a time when poets could enjoy success in America). The facts of Lillian's life are based upon Ms. Fishback and we are told in the afterword that she accomplished all of these things herself. We are also told that the poetry that is used throughout the novel actually belonged to Fishback. And after finishing this novel, I am fascinated with this woman.
The novel follows Ms. Boxfish as she walks around New York. She first heads to the same restaurant she has eaten dinner at every New Years Eve for years, as the novel takes place in 1984 as it turns to 1985. As she walks, she recalls her youth, her move to the city, her single life, her marriage, and many other events that have made her who she is today. She meets a number of very interesting characters - and like people of her generation asks everyone their names and learns a little bit about them. I think for me it was the regal way that she handled herself, and the fact that she was so proper and formal that I found endearing. There is a running joke through out the novel that she has a rap song stuck in her head - Rappers Delight - which every time she tried to recall the lyrics made me smile. Lillian wants to remember who she is, and in doing so remembers why she so loves the city and its people.
The novel deals with a number of very important themes for the time and even today. A woman in the 30's and 40's wanting to make her own way in a "man's world". More than proving herself, but never getting the full credit she deserves. Having to leave her job when she gets pregnant because there was no maternity leave, and it was expected that she would not return to work. The powerful depiction of depression as she comes to resent the life she lives, and the therapy that she goes through to find herself. This section was one of the most powerful parts of the novel. It turned her into an even more three dimensional character - and made me understand her a little bit better.
Ms. Rooney is an excellent writer. She can keep you entertained while turning out sentences that will stop you so that you can write them down. In Lillian Boxfish she has created a woman that I personally will never forget, and will go on my shelf along the women of Barbara Pym and May Sarton novels.
My only issues, and they are small, with the novel is that towards the end I start to loose my belief that a woman of 84 (really 85) years of age could start walking at 4 pm and still be walking around New York after midnight. I know she had a number of breaks, but I still felt as if her body would have eventually stopped her from her adventure. And there is one section that briefly deals with the AIDS epidemic that I found a bit clunky. But, in the end, I really did not care. I wanted to walk with Lillian wherever she went and kept waiting for her to tell me more stories about her life and to give me her observations about the world in which she lived.
Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk is the first novel that I have read this year that really made me feel happy. I have read a number of great books, and they have challenged me and made me love them in a number of ways. But at the end of this book, when Lillian walked in her house to feed her cat - I too felt like I had made it home.
Rating : 4 1/2 books