Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk – Kathleen Rooney

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It’s safe to say, Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk by Kathleen Rooney has found a home at the top of my “favorite books” list. Trying to find words to describe why I loved everything about this book is difficult when there are so many reasons. Let me try my best to give this book the credit it deserves. Trust me, you NEED to add this one to your collection. You truly will not be disappointed.

I originally grabbed this book because I was attracted to the cover art; I loved the colors, font, and the watercolor vibe. Plus, the woman looked very riveting to me. The cashier at the bookstore told me I’d love this book and he was right. Let me just say this right from the get-go: Lillian Boxfish is my new fictional best friend. I LOVE her; she is what we modern day folk call a “boss b*$@h”.

Part of the reason I fell in love with her is two-fold. In the 1930s, Lillian was the highest paid advertising woman in the country where she wrote copy for R.H. Macy’s in New York City. [I graduated with a dual degree in advertising.] The author, Kathleen Rooney, is an English and Creative Writing professor at DePaul University. [I graduated with my degree from DePaul.] See where I’m going with this? Advertising has always been fascinating to me, hence why I have a degree in it, and to learn about the ad world in the early to mid 1900’s was one of the highlights of this book. I also loved the fact that I was supporting a local Chicago author at the same time. **Slight spoiler alert** If you read the Author’s Note at the end, you’ll discover that this book was inspired by Margaret Fishback, one of the most well known poets and ad copy writer for R.H. Macy’s during the 1930s. BRB as I go Google her…

The entire novel spans across one night, New Years Eve of 1984. Each chapter alternates between present time and Lillian’s past life. During present time, Lillian takes a walk on NYE around the city, visiting places of her pastime that held significance to her. Truly, I wouldn’t want to walk around NYC with anyone else besides Lillian.

It becomes very clear that Lillian was extremely driven and career-focused. She was an articulate ad copywriter that sparked national attention and a witty poet who’s straight-to-the-point poetry was published several times. She moved up the corporate ladder during a time when women were meant to bear children and tend to their husbands. She wanted no part of that and in fact, this is the very subject that most of her poems centered around. Her witty humor and sharp tongue was the first of its kind in this industry. People went nuts for her and she quickly became the most well known advertising executive in the country. Living in a digital age, I loved hearing how different the advertising styles and techniques were nearly 100 years ago. It made me wish I could time travel back for a day to visit the copywriting department on the 13th floor of R.H. Macy’s!

Lillian loved her life in NYC and working in the ad industry as the highest paid woman, she lived a pretty luxurious one. She stood up for the exact issues women are fighting for today: gender inequality and gender pay gaps in the workplace. As a woman, she knew her worth. R.H. Macy’s sales would not have been booming off the charts if it weren’t for Lillian Boxfish. During a time in our country where women were called “little girls” and “darling” by men, Lillian proudly renamed one of her books to “Nobody’s Darling”. As a self-proclaimed cynic and independent woman, marriage and motherhood weren’t really in the cards for her until she met, married, and eventually divorced Massimiliano Gianluca Caputo, known as Max. Together, she and Max had only one son, which Lillian was honest when she shared her concerns on whether motherhood was cut out for her. This could be attributed to the reality that R.H. Macy’s did not provide maternity leave and did not hold positions for women who were pregnant. Lillian knew if she had a child, her career in advertising would be over.

Many of the issues that Lillian and those living in the early 1900’s experienced are still happening today. Not only does this book discuss issues such as gender inequality, it discusses the ever-changing gentrification of NYC. Old-time buildings with character and history were being torn down and sky scrapers were quickly growing. **Another slight spoiler alert**: Depression and mental illness is lurking between the pages, coming out full throttle near the end. Yet another issue we currently face: mental illness is real and happiness is never guaranteed to be a direct result of money and success.

Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk made me nostalgic for a city and era that I have never lived in. At times, I felt like I was a NYC resident in the 1930’s who attended the elaborate ad parties with Lillian. Other times, I felt like a proud New Yorker sad to see the historic buildings being replaced with modernism and the crime rate rising. Lillian could teach us all a few things about life – here is what she taught me:

  1. It is OK to be career-driven and want to be successful. It is ALSO ok to want marriage and motherhood, just as bad
  2. Doing something because it’s what society is doing does not always mean it will make you happy
  3. Be proud of the city you live in. Embrace the weirdness, the changes, and the history
  4. Be kind and make an effort to get to know every person you cross paths with. You can learn so much about a person just by striking up a simple conversation while waiting in line to pay for your coffee
  5. When you have the means to give back, do it
  6. It’s ok to not be ok; to not be happy. Speak up to those you trust have your best interests in mind
  7. Just because you’re 85 years young does NOT mean you can’t stop being fabulous
  8. Walking is pure therapeutic goodness for the soul
  9. Be your own kind of bold and beautiful. Wear the firey orange lipstick and die your hair red if it makes you feel good
  10. Take life with a grain of salt: appreciate everything – the good, the bad and the ugly. Life is precious and we only get one chance to make it the best it can be.

“I walked with no objective in mind beyond a vague interest in finding an old-fashioned cream soda, and six hours later I was seeing the sun set behind the Statue of Liberty…I just stood still and watched, hoping that the tears on my cheeks could be plausibly blamed on the biting wind of the upper deck of the Staten Island Ferry. We’ve been here all along, the world seemed to say, waiting for you. What took you so long?…No one survives the future, of course. Over the years I have rushed it, run from it, tried to shunt myself from its track. That these efforts did not succeed does not mean that I regret them” – Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk – Kathleen Rooney

In just 284 pages, Lillian Boxfish provided never-ending insight, laughter, and perspective more than any fictional character has for me. It’s been awhile since I’ve read a book and felt so emotionally attached as I do with this one. I understand that not everyone will feel this way, but I think we could all benefit from having a little bit of Lillian Boxfish in our lives.

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