“What a Smart Girl”: Kathleen Rooney, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

Fifteen inquiries. Five favorable replies. Including one by telegraph from R. H. Macy’s. This was the one I chose: my first serous job in New York City. A job which in some ways saved my life, and in other ways ruined it. What a smart girl.

The premise of Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk is simple. It’s New Year’s Eve in 1984, and Lillian Boxfish, 84 (or is it 85? even she is no longer quite sure) – once celebrated for the sparkling ad copy she wrote for R. H. Macy’s, as well as for her books of witty light verse – heads out for her traditional dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant. Lillian’s appetite has been spoiled, though, by a package of Oreos she has unthinkingly devoured while on the phone with her son. “I am, for the life of me,” she says testily,

unable to fathom why I even had the vile black sandwiches. Did I buy them while the grandchildren were here? I’m sure I did not. My week prior to their visit was a Tartarus of sheet pans, spent in the creation of a Christmas-cookie fantasia; had the little goblins at any point asked me for packaged cookies, I’m quite certain I would have shipped them back to Maine with stockings full of coal.

Her best guess is that, ironically enough, she herself has been taken in by advertising: “I don’t remember wandering the grocer’s aisles with the idiotic jingle playing in my head, but no doubt I did. I don’t remember lifting the cookies from their shelf . . . and dropping them in my basket, but nevertheless they infiltrated my pantry. A nutritionally nugatory Trojan horse.”

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk follows Lillian on what becomes a much longer and more meandering walk around Manhattan than she originally intended. As she travels, she reminisces — about her heyday at Macy’s, her marriage and the birth of her son, the eventual breakdown of her marriage, her treatment for depression and alcoholism. En route, she also has a series of encounters, some comic, some touching, that showcase the wit and fierce independence that make her such an an appealing character. Ending up, for instance, at a friend’s rather wild party in Chelsea, she’s confronted by a drunken guest who thinks she looks too old and too conservative to belong. “Who the fuck invited Nancy Reagan?” he says antagonistically. Lillian is undaunted:

“When you’re insulting someone,” I say, “the trick is to be fast, specific, and accurate. Two out of three won’t do. You fumbled the third. Please note that I am six inches taller, twenty years older, and more adventurously dressed than Nancy Reagan has ever been.”

Almost everyone she runs into on her walk tries to discourage her from continuing, but Lillian refuses to make any concessions to her age and the vulnerability they read into it — or to the actual threats she encounters. Walking has always renewed and refreshed her, and she’s not about to give it up. As a poet, she depended on her walks:

My funny old brain, like those of many poets, has always done its best work sideways, seeking out tricky enjambments and surprising slant rhymes to craft lines capable of pulling their own weight. Taking to the pavement always helps me find new routes around whatever problems I’m trying to solve: phrases on signs, overheard conversations, the interplay between the rhythms of my verse and the rhythm of my feet.

“A motto favored by the ancients,” she notes, “was solvitur ambulando: It is solved by walking.”

I enjoyed Lillian a lot. I particularly appreciated the pleasure she takes in words, which is both appropriate to her vocation and part of what she stands for in the face of a world that she thinks is giving up its commitment to civility and to cleverness in favor of appealing — like the insidious Oreo commercial — to our subconscious desires, rather than our reason and our imagination. She misses the clever “verbosity” she and her friends treasured in her youth. During her New Year’s Eve walk, she finds herself trying to walk to the beat of a rap song she heard from a car window as she set out and reflects that “this is where playful language is cherished now”:

Rap I like. That’s because of the words, of course, which instead of being chained to some inane melody are freed to lead the rappers where they will, by way of their own intrinsic music. So it seems, at least, to my untrained ear. Much of it is utter nonsense, to be sure. As with the best nonsense, some of it seems as if it were made up on the spot, and also as if it could be a thousand years old.

In this enthusiasm for language, Lillian reminded me a bit of my grandmother, who always called herself — and always embraced anyone else who was — a “word person.” Like Lillian, too, my grandmother always asserted her strong-minded, idiosyncratic self. She enjoyed dressing up and hated being looked down on for being an old woman. It wasn’t until after her death that I realized how much courage it took to live her life the way she did, including (again like Lillian) having a career when it wasn’t expected of her, and living on her own, and on her own terms, until the end.

Rooney’s author’s note explains that Lillian is based on Margaret Fishback, a copywriter and poet whose verses stand in for Lillian’s in the novel. I don’t know how closely Lillian’s character (as opposed to her life) is meant to resemble Fishback’s, but Rooney has given us a woman who is frank and tough enough that the novel is never twee or sentimental. It’s also very evocative of New York, a city where I too have always preferred to walk, so as not to miss anything. When I was a student at Cornell, I used to go there regularly, and I always loved the feeling of freedom it gave me, as if anything is possible on its hectic streets. Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk doesn’t indulge this visitor’s fantasy — Lillian’s New York is gritty as well as iconic — but I ended the novel feeling renewed enthusiasm for going back and talking another walk around Manhattan myself.

3 thoughts on ““What a Smart Girl”: Kathleen Rooney, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

  1. Irene February 14, 2017 / 1:55 pm

    I thought I’d love this book when I read the reviews. The concept is great, but it didn’t work for me at all as fiction. A lot of telling, not showing.


    • Rohan Maitzen February 14, 2017 / 2:16 pm

      I’m a fan of telling. How could I not be, as a Victorianist? I found Lillian’s narration of her life brisk, witty, and entertaining — and sometimes touching, too. You could say that what she “shows” is her own character, through her voice. But what makes a book work for one reader and not for another is always somewhat mysterious.


      • Colleen February 17, 2017 / 12:11 am

        I am also a fan of telling, so will keep an eye out for this book!

        I really don’t understand how “showing rather than telling” has become the rule for everything. Surely there’s space for diversity in style?


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