I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
On New Year’s Eve 1984, Lillian Boxfish takes a walk. It’s a simple premise that serves the narrative well. What follows is the story of a life fully lived, told in roughly chronological flashbacks as Lillian moves through the neighbourhoods of her past.
Lillian is the heroine we want to read about. In the 1920’s, she takes a job in advertising and quickly becomes the highest paid woman in her profession. She gains fame for writing catchy light poetry and for disdaining all things traditional, including love and marriage. And then she meets the man that will become her husband. She struggles to balance her marriage and her passion for writing. She becomes a mother. And a divorcée. And the times are changing.
As Lillian walks the streets of the mid-80’s she tells her story with a quiet simplicity. She’s not lost her spunk or ability to intuit a new situation, and her insights about what it was like to be a woman living a life of her own through the 20th century feel so understated and wise that I had to remind myself that this is a work of fiction. (Sort of. More on that later.) By this point she’s an old woman who knows herself completely and remains to the end a modern woman.
It’s impossible to ignore New York City as a character in the book. It grows and changes in parallel with Lillian’s life, but is ever-present and beautifully rendered. While reading this, I was also listening to Springsteen’s memoir Born to Run on audio, and I couldn’t help but make comparisons between Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk and the early songs of Springsteen’s career. The characters of New York City Serenade, It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City, and Jungleland all feel like they could be right around the corner. Like the best songs, nothing Rooney does is in your face trying to get your attention. Her writing is calm and measured, but immediately transports you to a specific time and place, and then a chapter later moves you again. The result isn’t whiplash. It’s a smooth ride.
I got to the end of the book and was excited to read about the inspiration for Lillian Boxfish. Rooney spent time with the papers of Margaret Fishback, the real-life Boxfish who was the highest paid woman in advertising in the 1930’s. Her life was as remarkable as Lillian’s and reminds us that we need to hear more stories about smart and strong women.
Feminist literature is new to my reading life. I really started to look for fiction titles with feminist themes only in the last year or so. If I know anything about publishing, it’s that readers need to be proactive about finding things that matter to them. You could easily spend your entire reading life reading books that publishing spends money making sure you see on every website and on the front shelf of every bookstore. It’s easy and there are a lot of fantastic books that get that sort of treatment and are deserving of your time.
But if you care about diversity in your reading and therefore in publishing, you unfortunately usually have to do more work. Luckily for this book, it was a Book of the Month selection, so is being read pretty widely already. A lot of books don’t have this advantage. So if you do pick this up (I suggest you do) and like it, and haven’t been thinking about your reading habits, I encourage you to. It’s something I continue to work on with every book selection I make.