If you love New York City as I do, I bet you’ll also enjoy Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk. This first novel by Kathleen Rooney features a young woman who took the advertising world of New York City by storm in the 1930s and continues to walk the city into her ripe old age. We follow along behind as Lillian spends New Year’s Eve, the last evening of 1984, walking from her home in Murray Hill to Lower Manhattan and back again. Her circuitous route takes her past former homes, favourite bars and restaurants, and of course Macy’s department store where she worked for many happy years, and where she made her reputation as the sharpest, smartest, most successful female advertising copy writer of her time. In those now long ago days there was always a table for her at Delmonico’s.
Lillian knew from a young age that she wanted more than marriage and baby carriages. She wanted to be somebody – to have a career – to live in New York City. And she succeeded as she dreamed. Along with a job she excelled at with Macy’s, she published poetry collections to much acclaim, had her own apartment, and a veritable parade of gentlemen friends. Her life was envied by most of her friends, though many wondered at her lack of interest in finding a husband and having babies. That is until she met Max Caputo, the rug buyer for Macy’s.
Lillian fell head over heels in love with Max, and he with her. Baby Gian, Johnny, followed shortly after marriage and a honeymoon in Italy. Lillian and Max appeared to live the very good life, no worries about money, satisfying work and a busy social life. But, motherhood was not Lillian’s best work and she soon felt the loss of her former self.
The story of Lillian’s early career, her marriage and motherhood are slowly revealed during her evening, and late night, walk. We learn about the girl about town, the happy young wife, and the following years, raising her son and her middle aged life as wife to Max. And, then, the later years alone.
Lillian is a complicated woman. An elderly woman by 1984, who “used to be beautiful”, she still cares about her appearance. She is still bright, still as uncompromising as ever, and still as brave. There were times I did not especially like the young career woman Lillian – she was sometimes too hard and very self focused, as perhaps she had to be to meet with the success she was so determined to achieve.
Only at the conclusion of the novel do we learn that Lillian’s life is, in fact, based on that of a real woman, whose life story captured the attention of Kathleen Rooney, who knew it would provide the framework for a novel that is a love song to Manhattan, past and present.