Accidental Critic: Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk
Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk
by Kathleen Rooney
St. Martin’s Press, 2017
Reviewed by Kim Kishbaugh
Lillian Boxfish is 84 years old (well, truthfully, 85, but what’s a little fib among casual acquaintances?) and facing New Year’s Eve in her usual way: quietly and alone. Then she distractedly, unconsciously, eats half a package of Oreo cookies, ruins her appetite for dinner, and sets off on what turns into a marathon walk through Manhattan.
Her change of plans yields a night and story as extraordinary as Ms. Boxfish herself. A poet who was for many years the highest-paid woman in American advertising, she has outlived most or all of her colleagues and friends, as well as her ex-husband, and stubbornly resists all entreaties to leave behind New York City, a city she loves despite its changing nature. It’s 1984, the Subway Vigilante is at large, the Twin Towers are still standing, and neighborhoods are changing. But Manhattan is where Ms. Boxfish belongs, where she has lived most of her life, and where she’s going to stay.
As she walks the city’s streets from just past 4 p.m. through the end of 1984 and into the start of the new year, she takes the reader with her on a remarkable journey through her past and present. Her reminiscences reveal on oversized life, and we discover the singular, exceptional woman she remains. Ms. Boxfish (I want to call her Lillian, and I think she would ask me to call her Lillian, but somehow the formality and respect of “Ms. Boxfish” feels more appropriate…) meets new people, makes new friends, and confronts challenges that would undo women and men half her age.
Through all of this, she maintains and cultivates a sense of wonder about both her city and life itself. Talking with new friends she has only just met during the night’s adventure: “We chat about the things New Yorkers chat about—the constant low-grade lunacy of life in the city—but I am surprised to find, and I think they are too, that our stories emphasize the serendipitous, even the magical. Our tone is that of conspirators, as though we are afraid to be overheard speaking fondly of a city that conventional wisdom declares beyond hope.”
With Ms. Boxfish, nothing seems beyond hope. This story of her New Year’s Eve trek is itself both serendipitous and magical, and author Kathleen Rooney has chosen well in setting it on New Year’s Eve. It’s a perfect combination of wistful contemplation and hopefulness, looking back while living in the present and thinking of the future. “It’s nice to feel a small sense of investment in the future, even if it only lasts a few hours,” Ms. Boxfish tells us after one of her many chance encounters with strangers who become something approaching friends. “I have so little future left. And so much past.”
That sounds melancholy, but Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk is anything but. It’s playful, lively, funny, reverent, thoughtful. It’s bright and cheery and fun, even when confronting the darker moments of Ms. Boxfish’s past.
I didn’t know this was a New Year’s Eve story when I started it on December 23. For me, this too was serendipitous; I’ve been wanting to read this book for some months but just got it delivered to me through interlibrary loan. For anyone looking to round out your year of reading with a story that’s just right for the season, Lillian Boxfish is a fine choice. It might even inspire you to take up a habit of flânerie, or aimless walking, which author Rooney has said is one of her favorite words. The habit obviously serves Ms. Boxfish well:
“My long walks, I discover, have provided a rich reserve of encounters with odd, enthusiastic, decent people; I hadn’t realized that I have these stories until someone asked to hear them.”
I, for one, am darned glad to have heard them.
Kim Kishbaugh is no kind of artist at all, but a lover of art in many different forms. She travels through life with an open mind and open eyes in search of magic, and sometimes finds it. She is Escape Into Life‘s social media editor and a long-time journalist with an unsettling history of seeing the companies she works for go out of business. She blogs occasionally at kkish.net.