Kathleen Rooney was inspired by the personal papers and published poems of Margaret Fishback, the poet and advertising copywriter for Macy's who in the 1930's was the highest paid female advertising copywriter in the world. Using Fishback as the model for her fictional character Lillian Boxfish, Rooney has written an unforgettable narrative with place (a ten mile section of New York City) being as important of a character as Boxfish herself.
It is New Year's Eve 1984 and Lillian Boxfish, now 84 (or is it 85? A woman never tells) prepares to
walk to a nearby Italian restaurant for her early New Year's dinner, a ritual that she has followed for decades. As she dons her signature orange-red lipstick (a popular color in the 1950's), full-length mink coat, and knee high rubber boots, Lillian begins to reminisce about her life in New York City.
Soon readers will realize that they are in for a treat as they follow Lillian walk to the restaurant. This "old bird" of a lady is one of a kind, and she views New York City as the same. One of the first indications that she is not a typical senior citizen trying to safely exist in a changing city is her reaction to a car passing by with the deafening beat of a rap song sounding over the souped up engine. Rather than grumble to herself about the decline in music and youth, Lillian admits liking the demanding beat and the inventive use of words, and wishes she could hear more.
What starts out as a short walk to dinner, ends up being a 10 mile hike around New York City ending as the New Year strikes. Quite a jaunt for a 84 year old! Although we never end up at Times Square and the dropping ball, we are given a priceless view of the changing Big Apple and the role it played in Lillian's work, marriage, parenting, and present life. The choice of New Year's Eve, 1984, for the setting is a superb one, for it is the time of the New York Subway vigilante, the first scary days of the AIDS epidemic, and a backdrop fear that the city is failing. Those who love New York City will love this book. So will those who have seldom visited or only visited via television, movies, and books. This is the type of literary fiction that book clubs should grab and spend hours discussing. I was just skimming over a dozen or so reviews on Goodreads. While most give this novel positive ratings, a few readers reacted differently. Some mention that there have been too many other books depicting elderly taking walks of remembering; for me, this is my first such book, so I find the plot refreshing, although I was a bit tired of the walk about 3/4's of the way through. Goodness knows, I would be totally exhausted if I really walked 7.5 miles at night in December!!
I also learned on Goodreads that this book is available in audio version. I love a good audio book, and this book's first personal continual narrative is perfect for that format. Whether you grab the audio version, an ebook, or the print hardcover, take time to consider the cover. The real Margaret Fishback's quirky ads and light verse were always accompanied by illustrations done by a friend and co-worker. The same is true of the book's Boxfish. The orange-red sketch of Boxfish chosen for the cover pays homage to those illustrations.