Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk: Quick-Witted Wins The Race

It's November 1931, and Lillian Boxfish, the eponymous protagonist of Kathleen Rooney's terrific new novel, out today, Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk, is in a downtown Manhattan office meeting with her poetry editor. Lillian has already established herself as the "highest paid woman in advertising" for her witty, humorous copy for R.H. Macy's. But her side hustle is poetry, and her first collection is about to be published. Her editor tells her though that one "fairly minor thing" must yet be sorted out: the title, he and his sales department don't like it. Lillian's response: "The title? How embarrassing...after all these years, and so many verses written, to learn that I have been misusing the word minor." Lillian asserts herself, gets her way, and the title remains in tact, as she preferred it.

I read this little exchange/scene three times, and laughed a little harder each time — Lillian's sarcastic response is perfectly emblematic of her character. She's quick-witted, whip-smart, and doesn't suffer fools gladly. And so after reading that, though I'd been skeptical about how much I'd like a book ostensibly about an old lady who walks around New York City, I knew I'd love this. And I did. A lot!

Yes, it is about 84 (or 85)-year-old Lillian Boxfish, taking a walk around Manhattan on New Year's Eve 1984, but it's also about her entire life, as a copy writer, a mother, briefly a depressed person, and ultimately simply an incredible woman. The novel alternates chapters between her late-night walk in the present (1984) and episodes from Lillian's life. But even her walk is fascinating, as she meets crime-ridden and dangerous (though Lillian is never afraid) Manhattan's diverse crowd of characters — a family who invites her to join them for a steak dinner, a limo driver, an Asian bodega proprietor, some artists and gay bohemians, and a group of African American toughs (which, though near the end, results in my favorite scene in the novel, a laugh-out-loud funny exchange, but an importantly profound one as well). Manhattan is Lillian's town, she owns it, and she will do it her way.

Kathleen Rooney is a fellow Chicagoan, and I loved her novel O, Democracy! (about the absurdity of politics, so yeah, fairly relevant these days!), so I was excited to read this novel, despite it being a bit outside my wheelhouse. I always think the mark of a good writer is to convert you from something you're skeptical about or not sure you'll care about to something you really love and want to highly recommend. Rooney's done that here! Like her protagonist, she's a clever, funny, and really smart writer.  

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