Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk is a stroll down memory lane, created by Kathleen Rooney. If you’re curious about the life of women in various decades of the twentieth century, this is for you. Especially if you love melodic language and poetry.

Lillian is 84, or possibly 85, depending on whether she tells the truth. And on New Year’s Eve 1984, she walks from the Manhattan neighborhood called Murray Hill to the Financial District and back. But actually, since she reminisces along the way, the trip travels through decades as well as city blocks. 

Ms. Boxfish is a rare bird, a woman involved in a career when most women thought only about marriage and children. Her narration of places and times, mostly right in NYC, rambles like the walk she’s taking. One chapter discusses her career, the next her honeymoon, and then she comes back to the here and now. 

Lillian is a copywriter for Macy’s department store. Her experience of the advertising world brings back visions of Mad Men, even though it predates the TV series by some decades. On another personal note, I also spent a very short time working in a department store advertising department. Let me tell you, it wasn’t nearly as charming and creative as Lillian’s experience. Times sure do change. 

So, Lillian and Rooney stitch the story together like a challenging crossword. Lillian tells her stories through clues, adjacent words, and plenty of playfulness. But don’t be fooled. Her life has some serious moments when poetry is the last thing in her mind. She’s well-balanced in that way, never maudlin, and eminently readable. 

My conclusions

I have my own Lillian Boxfish—my maternal grandmother. Born in New York City around the same time as Lillian, she loved language and regularly recited poetry. She was a career woman, definitely a city dweller, and often a rebel. And for me, she was as magical and flawed as Boxfish. 

I added pictures of my gram to the book image above, because that’s who I pictured while I listened to the book. Speaking of the audiobook, I loved Xe Sands’ narration. Her voice is just the right timbre, with a bit of former smoker style gravel. You’d never know she’s not Lillian.

Rooney is a poet herself, so I thought perhaps she’d written Lillian’s poems. I was thrilled to find that Lillian is based on a real woman named Margaret Fishback. Fishback’s papers—ads, poems, letters, etc.—can be found at Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History at Duke University.

I recommend this to historical fiction and memoir (even though this fictional) readers. 

Pair with City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert, for another view of New York City from a unique woman’s perspective.