It is New Year’s Eve and Lillian Boxfish, age 85, leaves her cat Phoebe, and her apartment in Murray Hill to dine alone at one of her favorite restaurants. She is early so she decides to go for a walk. Walking is something she has done all her life, often walking over five miles per day. It is in walking that she has found her muse, inspiring her to write poetry and come up with her very best ideas. Now when she walks, she surveys modern society and ponders social change. Now her thoughts are heavily interspersed with reminiscences of her youth.
Lillian is not at all hungry, so after a quick drink at the restaurant, she finds herself not ready to return home. So she walks some more. And she walks… and she walks… her destination is to another restaurant – Delmonico’s. She feels that by the time she gets there she will finally be hungry.
Lillian’s reminiscences relate her memories of some of the most interesting and historically significant times in the history of New York. In her bohemian youth she has lived through the affluent 1920s, the ‘Crash’ in the 1930s, prohibition, WWII, and the list goes on and on. Her story has so much potential! However… throughout it all, Lillian seemed disconnected to events. Always quite successful, she seems unaffected by the stock market crash as she worked right through it. She drank and partied her way through prohibition.
“I am old and all I have left is time. I don’t mean time to live; I mean free time. Time to fill. Time to kill until time kills me.”
Now an octogenarian, Lillian laments her lost youth, and reflects upon the loneliness incumbent on the aged – when many friends, acquaintances, and contemporaries are no longer living. My problem with that was that the story read almost like a report. We learned that she had many people in her life. Friends, coworkers, lovers – people she adored and people she barely tolerated. But… we didn’t get to ‘know’ any of them. Not even her very best friend Helen. Other than her name and what she did for a living, Helen was an enigma. Other than the fact that Lillian and her husband Max were truly in love, we didn’t ‘know‘ anything about him. We learned that Lillian just about always had a cat. We learned their names but nothing about their personalities. I admired Lillian, who wouldn’t? She was vivacious, witty and very intelligent. She was a feminist and a career woman who lived in a time when women just wanted to stop working and get married and raise a family. She championed equal pay for equal work. She was a maverick. But all of these admirable traits were related with no real empathy. We didn’t learn ‘how‘ Lillian felt – and ‘why‘ she championed the causes she did.
“Winter, at bay for weeks, has taken sundown as its cue”
This novel employs some well rendered imagery and was well researched. But – it wasn’t a warm novel, rather a relating of events and people. The only warmth I could discern was when she thought about her husband Max and her son, Johnny. Oh, and her work. Her work was her comfort. Now long retired, one realizes that she no longer has any comfort – other than her walking through a city that she loves with palpable affection. My problem with “Lillian Boxfish goes for a walk” was that for me it read like a history book – not a novel. In a novel I expect to get to know the characters and through that knowing form a temporary bond with them. Because it was related the way it was, I didn’t really care about the characters, though the book did warm up at around the 62% mark. It was then that we learned of Lillian’s bout of depression, her alcoholism, and her subsequent divorce from the love of her life. By the end of the book I found I had acquired a deep respect for Lillian.
I expected to like this novel more than I did. I did like Lillian Boxfish’s character, but I didn’t empathize with her as much as I thought I would. She seemed too advantaged and too self indulgent – but after sticking with her story right up until the end, I realized that, like most people, Lillian had hidden depths that are not at first apparent. Also I found her story verbose and over long. Funny, because I love words, and learned several new ones whilst reading this novel. Some of which include: pulchritudinous, simulacrum, anhedonia, augury, bellicose, hermetists, evanescent and unctuous.
Thank you to St. Martin’s Press via NetGalley for providing me with a digital copy to read and review.Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and Creative Writing at DePaul University and is the author of eight books of poetry, nonfiction, and fiction, including the novel O, Democracy! (Fifth Star Press, 2014) and the novel in poems Robinson Alone (Gold Wake Press, 2012). A winner of a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from Poetry magazine, her reviews and criticism have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times Magazine, The Rumpus, The Nation the Poetry Foundation website and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago with her spouse, the writer Martin Seay.
Meet the REAL Margaret Fishback! Watch this short presentation:
This novel was inspired by poetess Margaret Fishback, the highest-paid female advertising copywriter in the world during the 1930’s who paved the way for many females following in her footsteps.