LILLIAN BOXFISH TAKES A WALK
As one might surmise from the tongue-in-cheek title, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk sojourns through a charming sequence of encounters, incidents, and conversations. Those precise situations are imagined by the author, Kathleen Rooney, but her main character is drawn from archival material found at Duke University. Margaret Fishback was a real-life New York advertising success in the 1930s. Famous for her witty one-liners, her lampooning poetry, and her insightful but satiric how-to-do books, Fishback was once the highest paid female advertising executive in the city. So, too, Lillian Boxfish.
Lillian, however, is not a carbon copy of Margaret Fishback. She has her own personality and her own set of adventures. Rooney creatively positions Lillian strolling across Manhattan one New Year’s Eve. While she meanders, the fictional Lillian thinks about her career, her authorial roles, her marriage, motherhood, the changes that have come to the advertising business. Most especially, she thinks about old age, for Rooney sets her novel in 1984 soon to be 1985, long after Lillian Boxfish was in her prime. Now in her 80s, Lillian continually muses about legacies and life.
Chance encounters trigger whimsical recollections. The narrative line threads back and forth, from the present holiday evening to Lillian’s professional prime to later years of marriage and motherhood (yes, despite her talent and her fame, a pregnant Lillian lost her job). She looks at the Macy’s façade, for example, and recalls isolated moments working there and various individuals who featured in her brilliant career. The jealous young woman who coveted Lillian’s success, the masterful illustrator who supported Lillian through good times and bad, the narrow-minded manager who would never pay her quite as much as male counterparts earned.
Along the way, Lillian dines at the restaurant where she and her ex-husband, their divorce just finalized, ate together for the very last time. She even orders the same entrée, determined to enjoy the steak this time. She briefly stops by a New Year’s Eve party hosted by a young friend, an occasion that gives Lillian the opportunity to recall other parties and distant generations. Even the music of the present differs from the music of the past. Leaving the party, Lillian remembers a panel discussion where she and two other advertising successes debated generational advertising ploys, unpleasantly dating Lillian’s talent.
Despite occasional set-backs and ill-timed events throughout her life, Lillian’s ironic wit has sustained her well. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk shows off her indomitable spirit, her gift for thoughtful introspection, her ability to always end up smiling. She adores people, particularly strangers, and she rather likes the elderly eccentric she has become. One special scene occurs near the novel’s close when three teen-agers accost her. Lillian stands her ground, bargains with them, talks them down. Can you imagine an elderly woman arguing with three reckless young thugs? Successfully? Like almost every happenstance in her long life, Lillian ultimately takes satirical control. Once in a while, past events cause her to falter, lead to failure rather than triumph, but overall Lillian always prevails over hardship and bad luck.
I wrote at the outset that Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk narrates a charming sequence of events. Lillian is an amiable holiday companion, a suitable comrade for any reader who loves a warm character and a winsome set of circumstantial conversations. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Kathleen Rooney: Robinson Alone (Poetry); Oneiromance (Poetry); The Kind of Beauty That Has Nowhere to Go (Poetry); Don’t Ever Stay the Same, Keep Changing (Poetry with Elisa Gabbert); That Tiny Insane Voluptuousness (Poetry with Elisa Gabbert )O, Democracy (Fiction); Ren Magritte, Selected Writings (Editor).