Friday, September 22, 2017

Historical Fiction: Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

When it came to historical fiction, 2016 was actually a good year for me. Now, we are nearing the end of September of 2017, and it has been incredibly difficult for me to find new historical fiction. There is plenty of it out there, of course. But for whatever reason, I am having a hard time finding books that I am interested in reading. Thankfully, I came upon Kathleen Rooney's Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk. Here's to hoping that finding more historical fiction published in 2017 will be easier in these last few months of the year.

The Situation: It is New Year's Eve, and the city of New York is ready to ring in 1985. Lillian Boxfish is dressed and ready to go to Grimaldi's Restaurant, where she goes every New Year's Eve, to eat a fantastic meal among people who know her, and have known her for years. And though it is New York City in January, Lillian decides to walk, and as she does, not only will she come across various characters, and visit various businesses and establishments, but she will also more or less tell the story of her long life and her incredible career. At one point, Lillian was the highest paid female in advertising in the country. Working for R.H. Macy's, Lillian wrote advertising copy, and in the 1930s she was it. After finding success in that field, Lillian also published books of poetry that also met with both critical and commercial success, thus expanding the reach of her name and legacy. Incredibly witty, smart, independent and hard-working, Lillian does what she wants and on her own terms. Even after falling in love, getting married, and having a son, Lillian was determined to be her own woman.

The Problem: Having been born in 1899 (though she lied about her age, always taking off a year and pretending she was born in 1900), Lillian's streak of independence was often met with opposition, but she was always ready to fight it. Her own mother was the first to object, but Lillian would also contend with critics, a few fellow writers that she had to work with, occasionally her editor, and finally, her own husband. In the opening chapter of the book, Lillian admits that her job at R.H. Macy's, which she loved, both saved her life and ruined it. She is proud of the work she did, and did not want to stop doing it once she became pregnant with her son. But when Gian, or Johnny, was born, maternity leave was not a thing, and R.H. Macy's was not about to hold a job for her, despite her past history and success. As Lillian spends New Year's Eve walking the familiar streets of New York City, which even she admits have grown more sinister in the last few years, she relives her life and its many successes, as well as its many failures.

Genre, Things, History: This is a historical fiction novel set primarily on New Year's Eve, 1984 in New York City. Lillian takes a walk, beginning at her apartment in Murray Hill, and ends up walking a little over ten miles around the streets of Manhattan, before the clock finally strikes midnight, welcoming in the year 1985. As she walks and comes across landmarks, businesses, and offices, the reader is offered pieces of Lillian's life. Her stories are not necessarily in chronological order, but by the end, the reader has a pretty good idea of how Lillian's life has gone, and how she feels about it. If growing up as a feminist in the 21st century is hard, it was even harder when Lillian was making a name for herself in advertising. However, she managed to do it, and never backed down when challenged. This is not to say she never had her own issues. She would always have mixed feelings about motherhood, even after having a child. And though she fell fast and hard for her husband Max, and he fell fast and hard for her, the marriage would eventually end after Max's affair with another, younger woman. It seems even a fascinating and self-assured woman can have her moments of doubt, despair, and insecurity. It is acknowledged in the author's note that the character of Lillian Boxfish was modeled after the real-life ad woman Margaret Fishback, who also worked at R.H. Macy's and was once the highest paid woman in advertising. This book is not an autobiography of Fishback, but a fictionalized account of an independent woman who managed to make a name for herself during a time and in an industry when that was pretty much unheard of.    

My Verdict: Lillian Boxfish is a fascinating woman, and the story of her life is anything but boring. Unfortunately, the way it is told in this book is incredibly boring. I tried to get into it. I wanted to be interested and invested. But I simply could not do it. Even as Lillian talked about some of the more hectic or scandalous pieces of her life, I found that I cared very little as to how things turned out. And for whatever reason, her interactions with the people of New York as she walked the city did not come off as believable for me. Something about the dialogue seemed forced and out of place. However, things felt more natural when Lillian was speaking about or with an old friend or family member. I will say that I did learn some interesting tidbits about Manhattan, as well as New York City as a whole. But as far as the story goes, I felt like Lillian deserved more. More what? I don't know. Just more.

Favorite Moment: Lillian's interactions with her coworker Olive delighted me immensely. Olive was that person that seems to exist in every office in America who is both petty and useless, but somehow has not been fired yet. She is clearly jealous of Lillian and looks for opportunities to undermine her, but does not have the intelligence nor that power to do so. Lillian is always able to dispatch her with a witty remark, or an outright insult, but the poor girl just keeps coming back.

Favorite Character: Outside of Lillian, there really aren't any other characters worth noting. Her best friend Helen seems like the kind of best friend we all need, but there really was not much I could go on that would let me call her my favorite.

Recommended Reading: Okay, so this venture into new historical fiction did not quite go as planned. But that's okay. I think anyone who picks up A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles will be absolutely delighted by what they find. I certainly was. And I hope to run into that kind of delight again soon.

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