Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. In Kathleen Rooney’s lovely new novel, the perfect title scrawls over the perfect illustration of a woman of a certain age wrapped in a fur coat, her hat at a jaunty angle. From the first page, the story lives up to the packaging. This irresistible book is based on the life of Margaret Fishback, who was a Dorothy Parker-ish poet and star advertising writer for Macy’s in the ’30s — in fact it features Fishback’s poems and ads.
It’s New Year’s Eve 1984, and Lillian Boxfish, the very model of The New Yorker-style flâneur (only female), sets out on a 10-mile trek through Manhattan neighborhoods. The 85-year-old plans to revisit her old stomping grounds. Yes, New York has changed: A subway vigilante is on the loose; muggers lurk in corners; streets are crumbling and dark; it’s cold. “The city I inhabit now is not the city I moved to in 1926.” Nevertheless, Lillian is undaunted. Hardly a fanny-packed, sturdy-sneakered senior citizen, Lillian dons a green velvet dress, wide brimmed fedora, and riding boots; she applies her stockpiled, discontinued Helena Rubinstein Orange Fire lipstick, then slips on the mink coat she boasts she bought for herself.
Nursing a Negroni at her neighborhood bar, she’s dismayed at the newly installed television set. Her professional eye assesses its ads. “To sell a thing . . . one tells a story . . . [but now] stories take too much time.” Modern advertising has become an endlessly repeated “asinine catchphrase.” Unlike most of her contemporaries, Lillian knew as a young women that she longed to do something “besides mate and reproduce and die, and advertising was that.”
As she travels, “an old white lady in a fur coat on a Murray Hill sidewalk, eavesdropping on passersby, wondering what I’m missing,” scenes shift from past to present. We hear about her first New York digs at a women-only hotel, about suitors, sex — “people had sex even back in those days” — her published books of poetry. She ponders her marriage to Max, Macy’s head rug buyer, part of whose appeal was that “so many people would think him a little beneath me.” She reports on her cherished job, the birth of her only child, and her forced retirement: “Every woman who got pregnant met the same fate,” Not always pining for the good old days, she confesses her pleasure in MTV and rap music which “keeps me from feeling old.”
Could there ever be a less old octogenarian? Even tripping down memory lane, she’s tuned into the here and now. So many stops along the way act as her madeleine. At Grimaldi for her customary New Year’s Eve dinner, she learns the restaurant will soon be under new management. She heads for Delmonico’s where she and Max had their post-divorce lunch in 1955. She passes by the Strand, its outside stalls once displaying her remaindered poetry collections; she looks up at City Hall where she and Max married.
Eager to see the water, she turns toward the Hudson. When she tells a security guard she meets along the way that she’s walking to a young friend’s party in Chelsea and that she’ll be OK, he says, “I don’t know if anyone in this city’s going to be okay . . . [b]ut if anybody is, . . . I got a feeling it’ll be you.” Near Saint Vincent’s hospital, she helps a pregnant woman in labor. She buys treats from a Filipino clerk at a bodega, gets coffee at Horn & Hardart, faces three muggers.
Each encounter is its own funny and touching vignette. And each memory, too, mixes both public triumph and private sorrow. She recalls her glorious honeymoon trip to Italy with Max, followed by the disastrous cruise that signaled the end of her marriage. She confesses her struggles with alcohol and her subsequent breakdown. After a stop at the Chelsea party, at which she is the oldest guest, she heads back to Macy’s. She’s come full circle to the department store where 60 years earlier she interviewed for the job “that gave shape to my life.”
This witty and heartfelt ode to a city, to its infinite variety, to its melting pot of citizens not only enchants but offers an important lesson: that human connections and work are what give life meaning. Or, as the indomitable Lillian says, “The point of living in the world is just to stay interested.”
LILLIAN BOXFISH TAKES A WALK
By Kathleen Rooney
St. Martin’s, 287 pp., $25.99