Wandering NYC and life with Lillian Boxfish

  •  Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk by Kathleen Rooney (St. Martin’s Press, 2017)
  • In 40 words or less: Lillian was a woman before her time. On New Year’s Eve, at 85 years old, she sets out to walk the important landmarks of her life in New York and revisit decisions, good and bad.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Primarily NYC
  • Time: New Year’s Eve 1984 and flashbacks
  • This book was pure pleasure. Lillian is based on a woman copywriter for Macy’s beginning in the 1930s. Kathleen Rooney captures both the bon vivant and the troubles that make a story worth reading. As a dedicated walker and child of New York, I was with Lillian every step of the way.

New York City has long been the destination for writers, actors and other aspirants with dreams beyond Main Street at home. Kathleen Rooney creates in Lillian Boxfish a woman pushing the envelope of the 20th century. Conveniently, Lillian is born in 1900 and comes of age with the new freedoms of the 1920s. This affords her the opportunity to seek a career in New York after graduating Goucher College, of course, living in a women’s residence, suitable for unaccompanied young ladies of the era. She eventually secures a position as an assistant copywriter for R.H. Macy, writing copy for the clever ads popular until widespread television advertising changed the field.

Lillian loves New York as much as she loves her independence. As a career woman of that era, her evenings and weekends were devoted to enjoying all the city had to offer and her growing expertise as a poet. Her colleagues were her core friends and occasional frenemy. While always very social, Lillian was disinclined to marry, move to the suburbs or give up her career.

All these stories are recounted in the course of New Year’s Eve, 1984, as Lillian walks across Manhattan, visiting many of the places that have defined her life. Although setting out alone, she isn’t particularly lonely, confidently stopping in fashionable restaurants for a cocktail and continuing on. At 85, she is still fit and interested in engaging with the city and all it offers, including bodega owners and young photographers she happens to befriend.

Lillian’s life has its share of missteps along with the successes. She marries and has a child late in life for someone of that era while continuing to work. Changing societal attitudes run throughout, and her beloved career at Macy’s eventually comes to an end.  As a trailblazing woman in advertising, she is held as an icon and then abandoned as the feminist movement begins to take hold.

Rooney’s novel is a welcome change of pace. Adding to the attraction of Lillian’s character is the knowledge that she is inspired by the real life of Margaret Fishback, who did hold an assistant copywriter’s position with Macy’s and had her poetry published. While the story is pure fiction, I’d certainly like to be Lillian when I grow up!

 

 

Elizabeth Strout returns to form

  • unknownMy Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout(Random House, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Lucy, long estranged from her family, is visited by her mother during a lengthy hospital stay. Bit by bit they rebuild a relationship, revisiting Lucy’s childhood in Illinois and the silence and isolation that sent Lucy in search of herself.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: New York
  • Time: Primarily 1980s
  • Read this for an aching look at the mother-daughter relationship.

After Elizabeth Strout burst on the scene in 2008 with Olive Kitteridge, the bar was set very high for any future writings. When The Burgess Boys appeared in 2013 early critics were pleased, many readers not as much. Like The Burgess Boys, My Name is Lucy Barton is a novel, not short stories. But in Lucy Barton and her mother, we have imperfect and complex characters that have been carrying steamer trunk-sized baggage with them for decades.

Set in a New York hospital the 1980s, the rhythm of hospital and family life are very different from today. While Lucy has built a family and career of her own,  her children rarely visit the hospital, her husband is caught up in his parenting responsibilities and averse to hospitals.

Convalescence is slow. Days run one into another marked by visits from doctors, diagnostic testing, and nurses on their own schedules. After several weeks, her mother just appears to Lucy’s surprise. One in the bed, the other in the side chair, they revisit Lucy’s childhood and the small town where her family still lives, still outsiders in many ways.

Little happens in this book. While they speak of the others in their small town, their peculiarities and slights, the acts that crippled Lucy are never spoken aloud. Smart and a talented writer, Lucy’s family never understood her gifts. She was the poster child for low self-esteem.

After leaving the hospital, the understanding gained from her mother’s visit finally allows Lucy to see herself and those around her in a new light. And she continues to transform for the remainder of the book.

If you enjoyed Olive Kitteridge, My Name is Lucy Barton may be worth a look.

 

Family business, family drama – a holiday weekend two-fer

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  • 51OFZxrOG1L._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_As Close to Us as Breathing by Elizabeth Poliner (Lee Boudreaux Books, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Three sisters and their families traverse personal and societal minefields in post-WWII Connecticut.  The family beach cottage holds their happiest memories but is also the site of a life-changing tragedy.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Connecticut
  • Time: 1948 – 2000, with flashbacks
  • Read this for a complex family story that brings in the complexities of a changing society.

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  • 51P7AYJdy3L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman (St. Martin’s Press, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: The business and personal lives of two very different brothers and their families are intricately woven together. Loigman’s family drama lays out the corrosive nature of family secrets and the price to be paid by all.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: New York
  • Time: 1947 – 1970
  • Read this for a family story that reinforces the old adage “be careful what you wish for!”

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Elizabeth Poliner’s and Lynda Cohen Loigman’s novels feature families that are close emotionally, physically and economically. Both books have as the historical setting the years following World War II. It’s no coincidence. It was a period of great transition with those family-owned businesses that survived the Depression and the war flourishing. Ethnic and religious prejudices are lessening a bit, although there remains the expectation that people will ultimately “stay with their own kind.” With new prosperity, families are leaving apartments in the city for new homes in the suburbs.

In As Close to Us as Breathing, three sisters spend their summer in their family cottage in a small shoreline Jewish enclave nicknamed Bagel Beach, as they did during their own childhoods.  The telling of the story is shared by 12-year-old Molly, the middle child of the eldest sister, Ada, and an omniscient narrator. The novel begins with the announcement that Davy, Molly’s 8-year-old brother, will die that summer in an accident.

During the work week, the three sisters – Ada, Vivie and Bec- share close quarters with Ada’s three children – 18-year-old Howard, Molly and Davy – and Vivie’s daughter Nina. Friday afternoon Howard, Ada’s husband, and Vivie’s husband Leo, would drive out to spend the Sabbath with their families. Howard’s brother, Nelson, was left in Middletown to mind Leibritsky’s Department Store, the business built by the sisters’ parents. Each person plays a distinctive role within the family.

As within every family, there are grudges held and sacrifices made. Poliner shares their secrets carefully, only to further the story. In ways small and large, characters chafe against societal expectations. The importance of respect within the family is seen in how these choices are hidden from those closest to them.

As Close to Us as Breathing is a wonderful period piece and family novel. Poliner takes extraordinary care to describe the details that paint the picture of their lives. While accidents like the one that claims Davy’s life are fortunately rare, the complex relationships that affect the family’s reactions ring true. Key to the success of the storytelling is the pacing which naturally follows the story itself. This novel has an excellent balance between character and plot and is worthy of inclusion in your summer reading.

While the catalyzing incident in Poliner’s book occurs in the summer, a winter storm sets into motion all that follows in Lynda Cohen Loigman’s The Two-Family House. Abe and Mort are brothers who own a cardboard box company in New York. Together they also own a two-family brownstone where Abe lives upstairs with his wife Helen and their four sons. Downstairs are Mort, his wife Rose, and their three daughters. While the brothers couldn’t be more different in temperament, Rose and Helen are the glue that keeps everything going.

As Helen and Abe celebrate their eldest son becoming bar mitzvah, Helen sees her sons needing less and less of her and wishes she had a daughter with whom to share experiences. At the same time, it is clear Mort regrets not having a son to become bar mitzvah and does not really understand daughters. When both Rose and Helen find themselves pregnant once again, they hope that the missing piece for each family will be found.

Several weeks before the babies are due, both Mort and Abe must go to Philadelphia overnight for a business meeting that may determine the future of their company.  A blizzard blows in and both women go into labor. Fortunately, a midwife is nearby and can attend to the births. When the men return, each is surprised and delighted to meet their children – a daughter for Abe, a son for Mort. From that day forward both family’s lives are changed forever.

At what should be a time of great joy, tensions within and between the families grow. Judith, Mort and Rose’s eldest daughter, seems to bear the brunt of it.  Judith is a wonderful writer, acknowledged by awards from school, but her father dismisses her accomplishments and creates barriers for her. As her mother also becomes more distant, she seeks out her aunt for advice and comfort, further increasing the mother-daughter rift.

From the beginning, Natalie and Teddy, the babies, were raised together. As they grew, they insisted upon it, even having dinners in each others’ homes on a regular schedule. And the curiosity and innocence of the young uncovered long-held secrets. As a duo, they managed to soften the hard edges that their parents’ had developed.

As the years pass, the family business thrives though the family relationships are not as lucky. Eventually, both families leave the brownstone for the suburbs, lessening the day-to-day tensions between Helen and Rose but at the cost of increased isolation for all. A horrific accident further fractures the family rather than drawing it together. Bit by bit, some of the secrets are revealed.

People are fascinated by the possibility of children being switched at birth. Loigman has used this fascination to good effect by including the reader in from the very beginning. The characters make choices in revealing some of the secrets. In doing so it is emphasized that there can be healing or hurt in the telling.

Unlike in Poliner’s novel, only a limited number of the characters are fully drawn. Loigman’s focus hones in on the effect of the secrets on each. What we see in The Two-Family House are two families entwined by business loyalty, nurtured through marriages, and almost destroyed for not leaving well enough alone. Loigman seems to hold a soft spot in her heart even for some of her more imperfect characters. Choosing to end the novel decades after its start allows time and societal change to bring about some healing that the relationships between family members couldn’t.

 

House of Thieves brings 1880’s New York to life

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  • House of Thieves by Charles Belfoure (Sourcebooks, September 15, 2015)Unknown-3
  • In 40 words or less: Belfoure brings to life high society and “these mean streets” in 1886 New York. His architect’s eye details the glitz of the Astors and the grit of street urchins in a story of family, crime and a living, breathing city.
  • Genre: Historical fiction
  • Locale: New York and Newport, RI
  • Time: 1886
  • Read this if you enjoy vivid historical fiction, an architect’s view of the world and/or are a fan of New York. This is easy read, perfect for a vacation or a rainy weekend at home.

Those who love cities and their histories glory in the opportunity to wander the streets looking at varied buildings that tell stories of many who came before.  In New York there is small industry of urban historians providing walking tours on the waves of settlement and the life created. In his second book, House of Thieves, writer and architect Charles Belfoure paints a vivid picture of New York in the mid-1880’s and the tour is included.NewYork-1886

John Cross is a well-respected and innovative architect with birthright into the upper echelon of New York society, known collectively as the Knickerbockers. Think Astors, Cabots and the like. He is equally passionate about his family and his profession.  It is with pride he celebrates his son’s graduation from Harvard and his dedication to teaching the less fortunate children of newer immigrants living in the tenements of Lower Manhattan. His pride is tempered when approached by James Kent, a man of refinement and connections. Despite appearances, Kent is the head of an underworld gang, Kent’s Gents, who informs Cross that his son’s extraordinary gambling debts can only be erased by Cross using his knowledge to rob the mansions, banks and finer buildings of the city. Kent quickly proves that death is the only alternative to compliance.

Cross keeps his moonlighting from his children but his wife learns his secret. Beyond saving his son’s life, keeping the family from scandal is vital. His daughter is about to make her debut, with all the fashion finery and societal rules that entails. Any hint of impropriety would dash hopes of a good marriage and ruin Cross’ professional connections. All three Cross children find out how the other half lives in New York through escapes from the strictures of their class.

As in his prior novel, The Paris Architect, Belfoure’s eye for detail and storytelling come together well. Those familiar with New York neighborhoods can picture the streets as his characters traverse the City. Aficionados of this heyday of women’s fashion will appreciate the descriptions of the finery and the lavish events. Reading descriptions of the latest building innovations is like taking a mini-course in the evolution of modern architectural techniques.

While at times I found some of the plot twists farfetched, I was happy to ride along all the way to the dedication of the Statue of Liberty, the shining event of 1886 and the climax of the book.  images-1

 

V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N!!

IMG_3210Just one view of New England from the passenger seat.  After eight days, 1400 miles, 9 states, visits with friends and family, our summer vacation is over.

Laundry’s done, mail sorted and life is returning to normal.  Mid-August is when I start reaching out to my book groups to start prepping for fall and September promises to be a very busy month.

Before I’m totally back in the swing of things there are reviews to write and some bookish reflections on the people and places we saw along the way.  So hang in there, it’ll be worth the wait!