I’m starting to think that maybe, for my first Book of the Month offering, I simply chose the wrong book. Don’t get me wrong, reading The Wonder is one of the most painful things I’ve done to myself in a long time, and that includes opening a closet door right on top of my toes and nearly removing a nail. But of the three books I’ve allowed them to send me, it’s the only one I’ve disliked to any degree. Which means that I probably made a bad choice that month.
This month I chose Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney. Sure, the premise sounds simple enough: an 85 year-old woman walks around New York City on New Year’s Eve, 1984. But it’s more than just Lillian traveling around on her own two feet. As she goes, she reminisces about the life she’s lived and how it defines her. Yet she also stops to talk to the most random people as she goes. Not all of them end up as friends, but many do, simply because she is interested in other people, and they find her interesting in and of herself.
According to the notes at the back, Lillian is based on the real-life Margaret Fishback, who was once the highest-paid female advertising copywriter in the world, and worked for R.H. Macy’s. It seems that all the poetry in the book does come from Fishback’s ouevre, which helps it to stay internally consistent.
The book is written in first person, because at the end of the night only Lillian’s perspective is what matters. She has never cared overly much the opinions of other people, though she does try to be outwardly gracious and polite. Most of the time.
We don’t see much of Lillian’s childhood, but we do see her progression from young rebel moving to the big city to escape her mother’s narrow-minded view of a woman’s place to the independent grandmother refusing to leave the city as she walks through its streets. The first two flashbacks are the most formative of the person Lillian is to herself and the world. Firstly, remembering the postcards for the train sent to her by her aunt Sadie, the rebel whom she would model herself off of. A spinster who worked as a nurse in New York City. Secondly, the memory of Lillian herself, becoming known as the highest-paid female advertising copywriter, being happy at her job, and being refused a raise.
From there, we go to other important though less formative times in her long life. Often the memories are invoked by the locations Lillian passes by on her journey. Sometimes she chooses to stop, other times merely to take note and continue on her way, lost in her thoughts of the past.
As we go on, it becomes clear from casual mentions that there was a dark time in Lillian’s life, a memory that she does not like to touch on. However, her New Year’s Eve walk has become far more than simple exercise, turning into a personal catharsis as she sorts through her memories of how she came to be where she is now. The final reminiscence is, naturally, that singular awful event.
That’s not the end of the book, of course. Midnight strikes, the year changes, and Lillian goes home, ending her personal introspection.
You may notice from my categories that I don’t tend to read a lot of general fiction. That I tend to stick quite strongly with my fantasy and science fiction. That doesn’t mean I have anything against general fiction of course. It’s more that there’s so very much of it, it’s harder to pick out books I know I’ll like. I do not enjoy wasting my time on bad books, especially when I’m the one selecting them.
Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk is one of those books that invokes an earlier time and makes you think about how much the world has changed in mere decades. Between that and current events, I think I’ll be reading a bit more general fiction next. There’s still plenty in my pile, but these rereads aren’t especially long.
On an unrelated note, today I heard that one of the booksellers at my local conventions passed away. I never knew him particularly well, but everyone knew who he was. His booth in the dealer’s room was massive, and he had the best selection of new science fiction and fantasy books. He will be missed.