Book Buzz: Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

What better way for indomitable octogenarian Lillian Boxfish to ring in New Year’s Eve 1984 than with dinner at Delmonico’s, followed by a brisk stroll through her favorite Manhattan neighborhoods on her way to a trendy loft party?

After an illustrious career as an advertising copywriter for Macy’s, Lillian’s no shrinking violet, and she won’t let a subway vigilante or the winter chill keep her indoors. Decked to the nines in the mink coat she bought for herself in 1942 and her signature Orange Fire lipstick, she sets out from her Murray Hill apartment, meeting a colorful cast of characters along the way.

Among them: a family of strangers who invite her to join them for dinner, a Filipino convenience-store clerk who helps her select the perfect hostess gift, a pregnant woman just going into labor, a snobby boor, and a trio of would-be muggers.

Lillian Boxfish is a hoot, and her needle-sharp observations are astute and made with love. She reminisces about her career at the top of the ad game, her first love, Max, and her darling son, Gian. She absolutely adores the Big Apple, and glories in its sights and sounds, even as it has changed around her. Her life has not always been breezy, as she freely recounts, but despite many setbacks she keeps putting one fashionable foot in front of the other.

In Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, the titular character is modeled on real-life poet and Macy’s advertising executive Margaret Fishback, who in the 1930s was lauded as the highest-paid female copywriter in America. Fishback’s witty poetry and light prose was published in the New Yorker and elsewhere, and was collected later into several books. Her humor was perhaps more Dorothy Parker than Erma Bombeck, and her ad campaigns for Clairol, Chef Boy-Ar-Dee, and others were droll and a little daring. Fishback died in 1985.

Rooney was introduced to Fishback’s papers by a friend who is an archivist. She was immediately drawn to Fishback’s verve and style, her accomplishments and her unabashed pride in her work. Rooney sprinkles imaginary bon mots throughout the book, like this ad for Macy’s jewelry department: “We’ve seen one of our diamond rings revive a young lady’s drooping spirit in half a second.”

This novel is perfection: quirky and authentic, never cute. Fun but also poignant. Charming without being sappy. If you love New York, or plucky heroines, or the 1980s, or just want a book to tickle your fancy, this is the one. It’s like the lines of bubbles in a fine, dry champagne: effervescent, uplifting and celebratory. Cheers!

Christine Perkins is the Executive Director of the Whatcom County Library System. She worked in the advertising business for several years before getting her Master’s of Library and Information Science degree. She wants to be saucy like Lillian Boxfish when she grows up.

(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, May 31st, 2017.)