Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney (2017)


I loved this book.  While a work of fiction, its main character, Lillian Boxfish, is based on Margaret Fishback, the highest paid female advertising writer in the 1930s, working for Macy’s Department store in New York.  The story takes place on New Year’s Eve 1984 when Lillian is 85 year old and is heading out for a 5 pm dinner alone at Grimaldi and then “early to bed with a book.”  But instead of that quiet evening, she decides to take a post dinner walk from her Murray Hill neighborhood, all over Manhattan, retracing important places of the past as well as a present day rockin’ New Years party with the 20s and 30s crowd at the old Nabisco factory in Chelsea (turned run-down apartments).   As she walks and visits these places, we get the life story–through numerous flashbacks–of this witty, clever, ahead-of-her-time woman.

She was immersed in the male dominated world of advertising, and while she was indeed the highest paid female, she was not paid the same as her male colleagues–a point she brought up to her boss several times. She was also fired as soon as she gave birth to her son and had to switch to free lance work.  In looking back on her life, she escorts us into RH Macy’s with her, she invites us into her personal life, including the scene at Delmonaco’s Restaurant where her marriage officially ended, and she allows us to witness her wit, her creativity, and her wisdom.  Especially her wisdom—such as she shares in this sentence: “Among the many unsurprising facts of life that, when taken in aggregate, ultimately spell out the doom of our species is this: People who command respect are never as widely known as people who command attention” (225).

A few pages later, she recounts an interview she did in 1980 (when she was 81), in which a few current day advertising writers discuss her 1930s style of creating poetry and wit with words to their style of advertising which appeals not to the meaning and nuances of words but to “fundamental emotions: envy, fear, lust. Animal instincts.”  She reacts to this by retorting, “It’s not that I no longer want to work in the world that you’re describing.  It’s that I no longer want to live in the world that you’re describing” (231-2). That’s my favorite line. It is, indeed, the advertising world we live in, and it’s cringe-worthy.

Lillian is the epitome of what we should strive for in our 80s: sharp, clear-thinking, active, witty, and brave.  What a lovely story.

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