Manhattan – the last time I was there was in 1969. It was so unfamiliar to me when I picked up this novel that I had to relearn the names and order of the Avenues, and look up the position of some of the most famous landmarks. I also had to use a Google map to follow Lillian Boxfish’s path through the city. I am not surprised that Daunt Books published this, as a bookseller Daunt’s is associated with travel books and the novel is so strongly set in the city of New York.
I remember New York as a lively city, full of excitement and strangeness. It was noisy and dirty and I imagined I would be back soon. This was my return. And it was such fun. Lillian Boxfish was an ideal walking companion, a flâneuse with class.
This is the 49th novel in the series championing older women in fiction in order to make them more visible. You can find the complete list of reviews and suggested books in the series here.
Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk
The book is set in 1984/5 beginning on New Year’s Eve. Finding herself alone on an evening which is typically celebrated in company, Lillian decides to take a walk. She has lived in Manhattan since 1921 and so now she walks first to her usual Italian restaurant, then to another in south Manhattan, then to a party in Chelsea and finally home. On the way she passes some landmarks of her life and we learn about her history.
The plot is tightly focused on Manhattan. Lillian does not stray further north than 42nd Street. The city has changed since she moved there in the 1920s: muggers, skyscrapers, the new World Trade Towers, loft conversions, Korean-run bodegas and so forth. We also get to reflect on how the city has continued to change since then.
Lillian is 84/5 and inspired by the real life Margaret Fishback. Like her inspiration, Lillian has worked as a copywriter for Macy’s store, becoming rich and successful as a result of her poetic sales pitches. She also wrote books of guidance for young women and verse, often humorous, including for greetings cards when she lost her job at Macy’s. She was successful, she was well paid and had a lively social life. Unlike her contemporaries did not want to get married. But Lillian fell in love and married Max, and later became pregnant.
Of course she lost her job when she became pregnant. This was the late 1930s. Her husband, being Italian-speaking, spent the war years away, and their lives were not the same on his return. They became less happy together and he was unfaithful. She descended into alcoholism, and an attempted suicide before being sent to a sanatorium and receiving electric shock treatment.
By the time of this walk Max, her husband, had been dead for many years. His second wife is dying and her son Johnny lives with his own family away from the city in Maine. Her best friend also died a few years earlier. Her new friend is welcoming, but their shared interests are limited. She has no-one to share her New Year’s meal with.
Despite her isolation Lillian is a very sociable person, speaking to many strangers on her perambulation. She is also not your stereotypical elder, not scared of the city, even at night. When she meets a group of three muggers as she returns home, she stands up to them and a curious and successful bargain is struck. The incident reminds us of a conversation with her son early in the novel. He requested that she should not walk on the streets and reminded her about the Subway Vigilante who shot four young muggers when they asked him for five dollars. What if she had taken her grandsons on the subway? The people of New York are idolising him, she says.
‘I walk everywhere dearest,’ I say. And it’s true: I like the exercise, and the subway cars are graffitied with so much text it’s like being screamed at, like the voices inside my head and everyone else’s have manifested their yelling outside, ill-spelled with spray paint. ‘And we weren’t on that train. And he isn’t shooting elderly ladies and adorable tots.’
‘But guys like the guys he shot are everywhere. Hoods. Gangs. Toughs. Whatever you want to call them.’
‘I would not resist if young thugs approached me for money,’ I say. ‘I would acquiesce. I agree with Governor Cuomo that a vigilante spirit is dangerous. Rude, too.’
‘Rude?’ he says.
‘Yes Gian. Incivility is not incivility’s antidote. […] New Year is bigger than any mugger, the way it makes people feel. Being old is depressing. The Subway Vigilante is depressing. But I love it here, this big rotten apple. I’m near my old haunts, my sycamore trees, my trusty R.H. Macy’s.’ (11-12)
We can see she is a woman of considerable spirit, although her breakdown which we learn about half way through was so serious she needed shock treatment to recover. And we learn at the end of the book, she did not acquiesce to the muggers, but together they struck their own bargain. She’s a lively creature, who maintains her standards, especially of honesty and of engaging respectfully with others.
The extract above also illustrates a feature of this book. The reader is given insight into her thoughts, which are often witty ripostes or reflections on the world as she sees it. We notice by this means the rich inner life she has cultivated for herself, that she has not been diminished by her experiences or by her age. She has loved many aspects of her life, and been as much in charge of it as she could be.
Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney published in 2017. UK publisher is Daunt Books. 277pp
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