Lillian Boxfish

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk: Is This Where The Sidewalk Ends?

Kathleen Rooney brings us her second novel, in which an elderly and colorful woman—one Lillian Boxfish—takes a mental tour of her own life while strolling purposefully through Manhattan on New Year’s Eve 1984. This memory lane walk reveals her historic advertising career, and her acute wit.  This is a bit of a writer’s tour de force in that the temporal agenda is short: one night. But the back story is rendered in city-inspired flashbacks. The novel is part-character study, part-tribute to New York, and part-celebration of those bold and successful career women who worked in pre-Mad Men days right on up till today.

Jennifer: Well, like, Mad Men is in my Top Five Favorite Shows of all-time. Maybe Top Two. But Lillian. What did you think?

Lara: For the record, I have never watched an episode of Mad Men. It seemed to fall into two camps for my friends: incredible or incredibly meh. So, I sat it out. As for Lillian… I liked it. I’m not sure I loved it. But I think it was a tidily told tale of reflection as one was nearing the end of her life. It had a nice contemplative feel. It felt comfortable. Like the mink stole she wears on the book’s cover. How’s that for a snapshot?

Jennifer: Good. I think I wanted to like this more than I did. It was terribly witty, terribly smart, somewhat droll like a cartoon in The New Yorker, compact and well-staged like an ad—but ultimately shallow? I hate to say it, but it felt like the life of Lillian Boxfish only existed on one, not super deep, level. I wanted to go a little deeper into her existence.

Lara: It is terribly witty and smart. Lillian is a firecracker and pretty whip smart. She marches to the beat of her own drum:

“Whenever ‘everyone’ is doing something, I seek to avoid it. But whenever someone tells me not to do something, that thing has a way of becoming the only thing that I want to do.”

That said, I think her reflections were deep enough. First, some backstory. Lillian was a beloved copywriter for R.H. Macy’s in the 1930s and 1940s, who fought (unsuccessfully) for equal pay, was married to one of Macy’s rug buyers, had a son, a drinking problem, and…


… a nervous breakdown that resulted in slitting her wrists in the bathroom of a dinner party on a ship followed by a significant hospitalization and electroshock therapy and drugs, plus a divorce from rug-buying Max so he could marry a younger Julia.

We hear about all of this on her long walk to Delmonico’s, the restaurant at which she and Max met post-divorce. She wanted to have a steak dinner that she could actually enjoy, because the last time was over divorce details, and she didn’t enjoy it. I am not sure how much deeper you really wanted her to go. That’s a helluva lot more than many people would share on a holiday night, walking the streets of NYC.

Jennifer: I don’t know. I’m not describing the reading sensation well. I think we skimmed the surface of things, touching upon milestones—but she was rather impervious to the impact. She is fully triumphant—which is to say uncomplicated. The electric shock? We’re not talking Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Rather, she emerges better than ever! Her history—while difficult—leaves her mostly untouched.

Lara: How is losing her marriage – the love of her life – due to her alcohol and her breakdown, coming out unscathed? Of all her reflections, she spends the most time ruminating about Max and their life. It’s pretty heartbreaking from that perspective.

“… no one here will know me any longer as the ex-wife of Massimiliano Gianluca Caputo. I’ll only be myself. Whatever that means. A strange old lady from around the corner. Orange Fire lipstick wiped off a wineglass.”

Jennifer: I know I’m just railing against the book, and I did actually like it—though it was the kind of enjoyment one might have when watching a really good ad. The love of New York was great, and I really savored the sidewalks of Murray Hill and Lower Manhattan and Chelsea. I liked her New York confidence and savvy.

Notice, though, hers was also a life largely immune from history. Though the Depression and World War Two are present, they were mostly without consequence.

Lara: Were you affected, with consequence, by the Iraq War? I am thinking not. And, you aren’t entirely true on that front. Didn’t Max deploy and come back different?

Jennifer: Yes, Max was deployed. Different? Not sure. I do think politics and cultural shifts affect the subtleties of life more. II actually did have something big happen as a result of the war in Iraq, but point well-taken.) But another mild critique… I think that her random meetings with people on the street—ranging from drivers to bodega cashiers, from restaurant people to hoodlums—were just a little too contrived. The conversations were stilted? Perfect for making a point? I’m ripping on this book! (I don’t mean to!)

Allow me to share some quips, for that’s what this book was pleasantly full of: well-written quips.

“The point of living in the world is just to stay interested.”

“ . . . [M]ost humor starts from irritation.”

“Apparently marriage can be done over, while a steak dinner cannot. And yet steaks are often overdone, which seems a significant paradox.”

“For though I was raised Protestant, my true religion is actually civility.”

But there are examples of vivacious verbiage! I like “fragrant coffee, honest stew.” I like when Rooney describes the Hudson River as being “full of hearty but toxic fish.” I think I detect a nod to T.S. Eliot’s “Prufrock” with this line: “Old, old, old—I had grown old.”

Actually, I might think the book brilliant if it were more of a nod to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” But it really isn’t.

Lara: And it doesn’t have to be brilliant. It just has to be enjoyable, and for me, it was. Speaking of the interactions with NYC life, I loved her interaction with C.J., the bodega worker who was putting his dreams on hold to help his parents with the declining store. Lillian stops in for some flowers to take as a gift to the hosts of the New Year’s Eve party she’s en route to after Delmonico’s. She asks C.J. what flowers he would like to see her walk in with if he were hosting the party. When C.J. comes back with a pot of dirt containing just a bulb, he offers the rationale for his choice:

“[T]his is a pot of dirt. But by the first week of February, your friend will have a big bunch of flowers better looking than anything you will see in that window. I’ll throw in a card that tells you how to keep it alive, make it bloom every year. It’s pretty easy. Now, if you and your friend don’t want to wait a month to see some flowers, I don’t blame you. There’s lots of great stuff in the window, and you can take your pick. But—to answer your question—this is what I what I’d want you to bring to my party.”

I loved that moment and that Lillian was able to have these kinds of interactions that often started out skeptical and uncertain, but ended in a lovely way.

Jennifer: Fair enough. Please know that I love a good New Yorker cartoon.

Lara: As well you should.

Next Up!

We will review Audible’s 2016 Book of the Year, The Nix, by Nathan Hill. Jennifer’s not sure she will listen to it, though, preferring perhaps to read it. Tune in for the drama that’s sure to stir up. Until next time… Happy reading, Snotties!


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