Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, by Kathleen Rooney, is a tough book to write about. I finished it over the weekend and I look back on it and smile, but equally, it’s a book that I almost abandoned several times. It came to me via the trusted source of book recommendations that is Ms M, largely because we had been chatting about Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Now, I don’t want to mislead you in to thinking that this is another Eleanor Oliphant. Lillian Boxfish is, well, quite a different kettle of fish.
The premise of this tale is that the octanagerian Lillian Boxfish takes a walk around Manhattan on New Year’s Eve 1984, taking in the various landmarks of her life and engaging with passing strangers along the way. In her youth, Lillian had been the best paid woman in advertising, working in a job that she adored for Macy’s and writing poetry as a pleasing and successful sideline. A fiercely independent woman for the age in which she was born, Lillian is an engaging and fun character and something of an anomaly for that era. In old age, she is no less independent, although she understands some of the limitations of her body. Rooney writes her so well, that as a character she is utterly believable and indeed upon reading the author’s note, I discovered that Rooney had been inspired by the archive of Margaret Fishback, who had actually been the highest paid woman in advertising during the 1930s.
So, why the struggle? I often feel that narratives that are split between past and present don’t work for me. I find myself speed reading through one section or the other, because I find whatever part I’m not reading more engaging. Clearly in this particular book it was essential to the narrative of the story that Lillian visit these places to trigger memories, but again, if it had been just the straightforward tale of Lillian Boxfish I think, personally, I would have enjoyed it more. It’s a gentle, pleasant read, for those looking for something fun and relaxing.