Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
Fictional Lillian Boxfish is a re-imagining of the real life of Margaret Fishback. The main events on which the story hangs are real — Lillian’s career and her light verse are lifted out of Ms. Fishback’s papers, which author Kathleen Rooney studied, but the author’s skill in bringing Lillian and New York City to life are all her own.
Rooney gives us a window on what it was like to be a career “girl” — Margaret was a successful copywriter for R.H. Macy’s in the 1930s and a published poet. Experiencing the fictional Lillian’s success as the skyscrapers are rising around her and her creation of her life as a single woman in the city is a treat. The challenges, as they come, feel real. The lack of a next step for career women (unlike men). Lillian’s attempts to either do everything despite the way others (including her beloved) wanted to box her in. The way she hides from her true feelings. There is a slight heavy-handedness from time to time, which makes me think that Rooney herself also has something to say on the topic: I’d be interested in reading an essay from Rooney in which she shares her own thoughts unmitigated by a semi-fictional character. That there are costs to forging your own path is something that Rooney clearly understands.
As a woman who spent considerable time in my teens and 20s wondering if I had to have children just because it was clearly the next step in one’s life (and what was wrong with me that I didn’t want this?), I have great appreciation for the brutal bottom line outcomes of Lillian’s choices and respect for the ways in which she tries to cope.
Rising above all this, though, is the city itself and more than anything else this is a love letter to big cities and the bizarre chance encounters that arise when so many people are in a relatively small geographic area. The map is helpful, but anyone who has spent even a few days in Manhattan will be able to orient themselves as Lillian walks and lets the stories rise up, cued by current encounters and the architecture of her past.
This is also a novel about expectations. What does it mean to be elderly in the city? In her old age, Lillian uses the strategies available to her to push back against her loving family — who just want her to be safe — and follow her own longing to be herself.
We are lucky that the author’s friend let her know about the Margaret Fishback papers, and that Rooney followed up on the offer.