A poet and writer of clever, innovative ad copy, Margaret Fishback was admired in her time—the pre–Mad Men era—but is mostly forgotten now. Rooney (O, Democracy!, 2014, etc.) has written a lively, fictionalized version of Fishback’s story, drawing on real milestones but imagining her subject’s inner life.
Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish comes to Manhattan in 1926 to make her mark. A smart, stylish, independent young woman, she lands a job at R.H. Macy’s, where she turns out witty rhymes that promote the department store; on her own, she writes light verse, eventually published in several volumes. Though a self-styled “scoffer at love,” Lillian falls hard for Max Caputo, the head rug buyer at Macy’s. They marry, but when she becomes pregnant with their son, Johnny, she's forced to quit her job—maternity leave being a thing of the future. The marriage eventually fractures, and Lillian suffers a mental breakdown. Intercut with this narrative is the more fanciful story of Lillian’s adventures on New Year’s Eve 1984. An old woman now, she roams the streets of Manhattan alone, passing landmarks public as well as private and befriending several New York characters (all too benevolent to be believed) along the way. The city is in decline—the Subway Vigilante is on the loose—which Lillian seems to equate with her own fall from grace. But the chance encounters lift her spirits, helping her come to terms with her past. While the book effectively underscores the fierce struggles of career women like Lillian in a pre-feminist time, it can also feel schematic. And Lillian’s dialogue is sometimes too arch, too written, to be credible.
There is plenty of charm and occasional poignance here even if the novel makes you long for a proper biography of the real woman who inspired it.