“Lillian Boxfish takes a walk” by Kathleen Rooneyn – Book Review

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.

New York’s infamous “21 Club” which Lillian frequented in her youth

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.”

“The Strand” – one of Lillian’s favorite book stores


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.

Delmonico’s restaurant – Lillian’s destination for her ‘walk’

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.

Many of my fellow book reviewers really loved Lillian’s story, but sadly, it was not a real favorite of mine. Perhaps you will relish it more than I…

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 MagazineThe 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

Margaret Fishback (upon whose life this novel was based)



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.

About Fictionophile

Fiction reviewer ; Goodreads librarian. Retired library cataloger - more time to read! Loves books, gardening, and red wine. I have been a reviewer member of NetGalley since October 2013. I review titles offered by Edelweiss, and participate in blog tours with TLC Book Tours.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Historical fiction, Literary fiction, NetGalley, Women's fiction and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to “Lillian Boxfish takes a walk” by Kathleen Rooneyn – Book Review

  1. Pingback: 30 People I Have Yet To Meet (and 13 people I’ve met already) | Fictionophile

  2. Began a brand-new job a little over a year ago and it was really difficult for me and I wasn’t good at it yet. This book was my one of couple of gets away. Great story, liked all the culture. Extremely recommend. I likewise advise to check out http://bit.ly/2NYHWES . PS: I like your blog. Thanks


  3. Pingback: “The Lido” by Libby Page | Fictionophile

  4. Annie says:

    Oh, it had my favorite ingredients, sad that it wasn’t one of your faves!!


    • Fictionophile says:

      Annie it had my favorite ingredients as well. Something went wrong with the execution that spoiled it for me. For me it read like a string of facts with little or no emotional depth. She was committed to a mental hospital and we knew she was sad but we never learned anything that led to her sadness – how she felt.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. rachel says:

    Agreed completely. I compared this book to mild salsa in my review. Not bad, just… bland, flavorless? I didn’t hate it by any stretch, but I really did fail to connect with it, and I’m sort of confused by the sheer amount of 5 star reviews I’ve seen. A solid 3 stars from me. Great review.


  6. I enjoyed your review. Sounds like an intriguing book, I’m hoping to travel to New York in September, so might be interesting for the history, if not the character development as you say.


  7. rashthedoctor says:

    Woah! Some really big words there , I only knew about ‘Anhedonia’ but that’s because it’s in the defining criteria for Depression and i had to read about it to pass my psychiatry exams back in my MBBS days

    I have read a few historical fiction in recent past. Was thinking of reading one again. But don’t think,this book would be it 😥


    • Fictionophile says:

      Don’t let me put you off this book, as my opinion is in the minority. It does read like a love letter to New York City, so you might enjoy that aspect of it. Anyway, thanks for letting me know I’m not the only one who didn’t recognize the lengthy words. And, as always, thanks for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Martie says:

    I really enjoyed your review, ab it different from mine. I love when that happens because it makes me want to re-read the book. If interested here is my review:


    • Martie says:

      Do you mind if I steal your idea of adding in new learned words when I review?


      • Fictionophile says:

        I was hesitant to add the words I didn’t recognize for fear that readers would think me ignorant. Now I’m thinking it was a good decision – especially if others enjoy it. If you want to do the same, then feel free. Not many books employ as many ‘new to me’ words as did “Lillian Boxfish takes a walk”!


    • Fictionophile says:

      I enjoyed your review and agree that the book is a love letter to New York City. Lillian WAS charming, but I didn’t really feel the ‘depth’ of her character the way I wanted to. I enjoyed the mugging scene as much as you and could readily picture Lillian at the New Year’s Eve party. I maintain that the novel reads like a history text as it doesn’t delve into many of the characters mentioned, rather just states that they were there.


  9. Interesting sounding book, love the cover, shame it didn’t quite meet your expectations :/


  10. Susie | Novel Visits says:

    I like hearing a different perspective on Lillian , so thank you for that. I love that you included information on the woman who inspired the story.


    • Fictionophile says:

      With historical fiction and biographical fiction I always like to add some historical references to my review. Thanks for your kind comment.


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