15 reviews

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk: A Novel
by Kathleen Rooney

Published: 2017-01-17
Hardcover : 304 pages
22 members reading this now
67 clubs reading this now
12 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 14 of 15 members


“Transporting…witty, poignant and sparkling.”
?People (People Picks Book of the Week)

“Prescient and quick....A perfect fusing of subject and writer, idea and ideal.”
?Chicago Tribune

“Extraordinary…hilarious…Elegantly written, Rooney creates a ...

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“Transporting…witty, poignant and sparkling.”
?People (People Picks Book of the Week)

“Prescient and quick....A perfect fusing of subject and writer, idea and ideal.”
?Chicago Tribune

“Extraordinary…hilarious…Elegantly written, Rooney creates a glorious paean to a distant literary life and time?and an unabashed celebration of human connections that bridge past and future.
?Publishers Weekly (starred and boxed)

"Rooney's delectably theatrical fictionalization is laced with strands of tart poetry and emulates the dark sparkle of Dorothy Parker, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Truman Capote. Effervescent with verve, wit, and heart, Rooney’s nimble novel celebrates insouciance, creativity, chance, and valor."
?Booklist (starred review)

“In my reckless and undiscouraged youth,” Lillian Boxfish writes, “I worked in a walnut-paneled office thirteen floors above West Thirty-Fifth Street…”

She took 1930s New York by storm, working her way up writing copy for R.H. Macy’s to become the highest paid advertising woman in the country. It was a job that, she says, “in some ways saved my life, and in other ways ruined it.”

Now it’s the last night of 1984 and Lillian, 85 years old but just as sharp and savvy as ever, is on her way to a party. It’s chilly enough out for her mink coat and Manhattan is grittier now?her son keeps warning her about a subway vigilante on the prowl?but the quick-tongued poetess has never been one to scare easily. On a walk that takes her over 10 miles around the city, she meets bartenders, bodega clerks, security guards, criminals, children, parents, and parents-to-be, while reviewing a life of excitement and adversity, passion and heartbreak, illuminating all the ways New York has changed?and has not.

A love letter to city life in all its guts and grandeur, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney paints a portrait of a remarkable woman across the canvas of a changing America: from the Jazz Age to the onset of the AIDS epidemic; the Great Depression to the birth of hip-hop.

Lillian figures she might as well take her time. For now, after all, the night is still young.

Editorial Review

An Amazon Best Book of January 2017: This is a novel about an 85 year-old woman who wends her way to a party. I may have lost you already, but Kathleen Rooney and her delightful Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk will not. Turns out, Ms. Boxfish is a fascinating woman who has led a fascinating life, the details of which she teases out before bidding adieu to the year 1984. One of the most talented and successful ad women for R.H. Macy’s in the 1930s (the character is based on real-life ad woman and author, Margaret Fishback), Ms. Boxfish was once the toast of New York. She reminisces about the time she asked her boss to pay her the same as her less accomplished male counterparts. Seeing as though that’s a battle still being fought today, you can guess how that went, but this incident hints at the kind of woman our feisty flâneuse is. You will learn more about Lillian’s life as a “Mad Woman,” and the one she didn’t anticipate as a wife and mother...Her story takes a dark turn or two as well, and you will root for her as she responds with her signature wit and mettle.

There are beloved works in the canon of great literature featuring famous walkers (James Joyce’s Ulysses and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway immediately come to mind). One of the joys in reading them is the motley cast of characters our heroes and heroines encounter along the way, and Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk is no exception. Whether it’s a bartender, a bodega employee, or a group of thugs, Lillian confronts them with the same infectious curiosity, compassion, and pluck. It’s a testament to Rooney’s writing chops that you’ll want to walk with Lillian as she ponders, all the while paying homage to New York in its gritty glory. --Erin Kodicek, The Amazon Book Review



The Road of Anthracite

There once was a girl named Phoebe Snow. She wore only white and held tight to a violet corsage, an emblem of modesty. She was not retiring, though, and her life spun out as a series of journeys through mountain tunnels carved from poetry. I never saw her doing anything besides boarding, riding, or disembarking a train, immaculate always, captivating conductors, enchanting other passengers.

No, there wasn’t. She was just an advertisement: the poster girl for the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad. Her unsoilable Antarctic-colored clothes were proof that the line’s anthracite-powered locomotives were clean-burning, truly—unlike their sooty and outfit-despoiling competitors:

Her laundry bill for fluff and frill

Miss Phoebe finds is nearly nil.

It’s always light, though gowns of white,

Are worn on Road of Anthracite.

* * *

I was five years old when I first laid eyes on her, on a postcard sent me by my dearest aunt, Sadie Boxfish, my father’s youngest sister, daring and unmarried and living in Manhattan. Sadie visited us in the District of Columbia, but not very often. Her rare physical presence she supplemented with correspondence in snips and flashes. After I scrawled back how much I adored Phoebe, star of the story-poems, they became the only kind of card Sadie ever posted.

The earliest ones my mother read aloud (though I could read):

Miss Phoebe Snow has stopped to show

Her ticket at the gate, you know.

The Guard, polite, declares it right.

Of course—it’s Road of Anthracite.

* * *

Mother clutched me in her lap, talking about the image—Phoebe in a hat, Phoebe in a dining car, Phoebe blue-eyed and mannerly chatting with the engineer—and reciting the poetry:

Here Phoebe may, by night or day,

Enjoy her book upon the way.

Electric light dispels the night

Upon the Road of Anthracite.

* * *

In her clear contralto above my ears I could hear, in her neat bosom behind my head I could feel, her disapproval: not of Phoebe, but of Sadie. My mother—who was well-educated, read widely, passably fluent in German, conversant with the works of Freud and Adler, married at twenty, and never received a dollar of wages in her life—was also a woman who took difference as a slight. Anyone not living a life that fit the mold of her own—wifedom, motherhood—constituted a personal affront, an implied rebuke, an argument against. I thought Sadie quite bold.

“What a smart girl,” my mother would say of Phoebe, who (I saw later) must have been so light and unburdened for having only air, and not one thought or care, in her golden head. Mother, stroking my own red-gold hair, meant only that Phoebe’s frock was smart, or her little white gloves. Not Phoebe herself. Not smartness of that kind.

“Aunt Sadie’s a smart girl,” I said only once. To no reply. To my mother, gritting her small neat teeth, pearly and needle-like, reading that day’s card more loudly than usual:

A cozy seat, a dainty treat

Make Phoebe’s happiness complete

With linen white and silver bright

Upon the Road of Anthracite.

* * *

Sadie, career girl, and Phoebe, socialite, embedded inextricably into one another in my mind. Both of them expressed the inexpressible, suggesting that sex appeal existed but probably ought not to be named while one was living at home. Suggesting not so much a passenger train as speed and freedom, not so much a gown as style, not so much a hairdo as beauty.

Mother saw Sadie as wasting that last, working as hard as a beast of burden as a nurse in a hospital in New York City. Though now I know that Sadie can’t have been living the life of Riley, I wanted to move there and join her. What a smart girl.

My mother resented Sadie like a stepsister resenting Cinderella, but she was polite. She did her no social violence. Was always hospitable and gracious on Sadie’s visits, both as a point of pride and because my father would not have abided otherwise. Though he, too, a lawyer, thought Sadie’s work beneath her.

My devotion to both Phoebe and Sadie has remained constant over the decades. When I think of either, I also think of lofty mountain chains and cool delights.

The New York I moved to eventually was empty of Sadie, though I’ve since walked by St. Vincent’s, the hospital where she worked, I don’t know how many times. She died in the influenza epidemic of 1918.

Phoebe, deathless, simply faded from public consciousness like a once-popular song. Anthracite, needed to fight the Great War, was not to be used on railroads anymore. The world changed, and Phoebe disappeared forever:

On time the trip ends without a slip

And Phoebe sadly takes her grip

Loath to alight, bows left and right,

“Good-bye, Dear Road of Anthracite.”

* * *

But I never forgot her. I didn’t want to be her, so much as to have her—to create her.

Sadie led me to Manhattan, but Phoebe led me to poetry, and to advertising. So enrapt was I at her entrancing rhymes that when the time came to apply for jobs, I rhymed my letters and my samples alike:

To work for you

Is my fondest wish

Signed your ever-true

Lillian Boxfish

* * *

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

Copyright © 2017 by Kathleen Rooney view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

1. How do Lillian's feelings regarding her mother compare to her feelings regarding her Aunt Sadie Boxfish? And how do these relationships shape Lillian’s ambitions and sense of self?

2. What initially attracts Lillian to poetry and how does it remain significant throughout her life and career, in advertising and otherwise?

3. Why are Lillian and her son Gian’s reactions to the Subway Vigilante and his crime so different? Why does Lillian love New York City unconditionally whereas Gian has come to fear it?

4. Have you ever loved a city or a place so much that you never wanted to leave it? Describe, saying where and why, or why not.

5. Why are manners and kindness so important to Lillian? How does civility relate to empathy and even to democracy?

6. How do Lillian’s achievements and struggles at the office at Macy’s—with her boss, Chester; with getting paid as much as her male colleagues; with her friend and rival coworkers, Helen McGoldrick and Olive Dodd—relate to the workplace as we know it today?

7. Why does Artie, Lillian’s editor, want to change the title of her debut poetry collection from Oh, Do Not
Ask for Promises to Frequent Wishing on the Gracious Moon? And why does she refuse? Do you think he was right or wrong, and were you pleased or disappointed when she said no? Explain why.

9. Why is Lillian ambivalent toward motherhood, and how does her friendship with Wendy differ from her relationship with her son Gian?

10. Why, after scoffing at love and convention for so long, does Lillian fall so hard for Max? What is it about Max that she finds so irresistible?

11. Were you surprised by all the chance encounters that Lillian has with different people on her walk through the city? Why or why not? Do you also like to strike up conversations with strangers? Why or why not?

12. How worried, if at all, did you feel about Lillian as she made her way across Manhattan? Were you troubled by any of her encounters? Heartened? Both? Which ones and why?

13. Lillian can’t stand the new and ugly Penn Station, built in 1968, that replaced the old and beautiful original— are there structures in your past that were torn down that you miss, too? Describe.

8. In what ways does walking in the city feed Lillian’s poetry, her advertising work, and her curiosity? How does her relationship to walking change over time, as both she and her city get older?

Suggested by Members

Have you ever met a stranger and been able to strike up a conversation the way Lillian could?
by drbeth (see profile) 05/07/17

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "Lillian Boxfish takes a walk"by rose a. (see profile) 12/28/23

Took a while to get into this book, but then finally got moving. Seemed a bit depressing.

by Cindy D. (see profile) 10/10/20

by Cornelia C. (see profile) 02/24/20

by Kris S. (see profile) 10/27/19

by Judith E C. (see profile) 09/23/19

by denise w. (see profile) 06/26/19

by Marilyn D. (see profile) 03/06/18

by Gail G. (see profile) 01/26/18

  "What a Walk!!!"by liz p. (see profile) 01/09/18

Lillian is 85 years old and it is New Year's Eve 1984. As a young woman she moved from Washington D.C. to NYC and was able to secure a job writing advertisements for R.H. Macy, eventually b... (read more)

by Lynda W. (see profile) 12/27/17

Fun book and story. Very well written. Reminds me of “A Man Called Ove””

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