Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk
What a delightful book this was! The prose sparkles with a poet's sensibility, and Lillian herself is the sort of person I would love to have over for dinner. (I understand that characters are generally not available to come over for dinner.) She has a sparkling wit, an open, non-judgmental heart, and an unimpeachable belief in the good nature of human kind. It's a shame then, that her life is, ultimately, so sad.
What informs this paradox (a sad novel creating a delightful read) is the keen insights Rooney offers, some of which are uncanny for such a young writer, and the poignancy of Lillian's situation. She is a bright, driven woman who is born about 60 years too early, and in her heyday (she was the highest paid woman ad writer in the 30's and an accomplished poet), society doesn't quite know what to do with her.
It is this - the desire to understand how her life got to this place - that propels Lillian to take her walk. It is New Year's Eve 1984. Her grandchildren have left after a nice holiday visit, the woman her husband left her for is dying, and Lillian has been invited to a New Year's party across town. She decides to walk, an activity that has worked for decades to connect her with the best parts of herself and her art, and she proceeds on a stroll through New York City. It is cold but not lonely, and Lillian's walk is populated by the vibrant characters she meets and the memories of people and places that used to strand her path. There is much to be satisfied with as she reviews her life, but much to lament as well.
The novel stays away from nostalgia and sentimentalism, much to its credit, and the ultimate message is a question of whether it is possible for women to live a full life - and how this is to be defined. Lillian's was fuller than most of her generation, but had she been born later, she may have had more latitude. The question of what is possible for the course of a life in a different time and place is largely irrelevant and a bit boring, but Lillian's pondering of this questions doesn't feel irrelevant or boring - it feels essential. Lillian's vitality, her bright flame in a constricting world, is lost on a generation with too little imagination for the scope of women's work. We are largely past this issue, and women can define what it means to them to have it all. In the case of Lillian Boxfish, it is clear that this is a tremendous gift.