She took 1930s New York by storm, working her way up writing copy for R.H. Macy’s to become the highest paid advertising woman in the country. It was a job that, she says, “in some ways saved my life, and in other ways ruined it.”
Now it’s the last night of 1984 and Lillian, 85 years old but just as sharp and savvy as ever, is on her way to a party. It’s chilly enough out for her mink coat and Manhattan is grittier now–her son keeps warning her about a subway vigilante on the prowl–but the quick-tongued poetess has never been one to scare easily. On a walk that takes her over 10 miles around the city, she meets bartenders, bodega clerks, security guards, criminals, children, parents, and parents-to-be, while reviewing a life of excitement and adversity, passion and heartbreak, illuminating all the ways New York has changed–and has not.
Lillian Boxfish is the character I’d like to be when I reach 85 (or even now if I’m honest). She’s smart, sassy, charismatic and she approaches life with a bravura that masks her shortcomings and insecurities. However the Lillian we meet in 1984 hasn’t always been that way, and during the course of New Years Eve 1984, we get to know all as Lillian looks back over her previous ‘incarnations’ from distinguished advertising copywriter, poetess, wife, and mother to aged divorcee.
The catalyst for her nocturnal wandering is a phone call from her son letting her know that his stepmother has just died – the stepmother that ‘stole’ Max, the love of Lillian’s life. Or to be more precise, the absent-minded consumption of a packet of Oreo’s during the call, that meant she was unable to eat her pre-booked dinner at her favourite Italian restaurant. What started as a walk from her original dinner reservation to regain her appetite, turned into a trip down memory lane, with detours and diversions to meaningful locations. From her first ‘home’ at the Christian Women’s Hotel in Midtown down to Delmonico’s near Wall Street. This latter was not just a legendary steakhouse, but the scene of her last lunch with Max, following their divorce. Finally she decides to take up a previously issued offer of a party to round off the evening – a party at which she’d have done well to heed the hostesses warnings – I’ll say no more!
The story which is narrated by Lillian, is a warts and all look back at her life. It’s not a sugar-coated reminiscing about all the good times, but a realistic look at how her life played out. While she may have been the ‘highest paid advertising woman in the country’ she still had to clear her desk and leave her position once she got pregnant. Her life took a downturn as she moved from celebrated career girl and poet to an everyday wife and mother. It was a change that as Lillian finally reveals had dramatic consequences for the way her life played out. Likewise, the people who Lillian meets while on her ramble have their own stories to tell and they offer an insight into mid 1980’s New York society.
For me, the book wasn’t just about Lillian it was also a celebration of New York or to be more precise, Manhattan. It was a walking tour of its parks, gardens, squares, districts and iconic buildings. It told the story of its development over the course of the 20th century from the Jazz Age in the 20’s; the Prohibition of 30’s; through to the urban renewal and increasing Asian immigration of the 60’s. By 1984 Lillian’s Manhattan was seeing the growing social disorder and crime rates of the 1970’s being answered by a vigilante fight back. Through the re-telling of her life, Lillian also offered fascinating insights into the prevailing social and moral mores.
Lillian was an amazing character, and I was certainly enchanted by her older self. It wasn’t until I’d finished reading I discovered she was based on a real life counterpart. Lillian Boxfish is the fictional embodiment of Margaret Fishback the real life poet and advertising copywriter for Macy’s and other major clients.
I received an ecopy from NetGalley to enable this review.