"Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk" by Kathleen Rooney

Grab your coat and come take a walk through the streets of lower Manhattan with a witty, outspoken, fun-loving and still curious octogenarian in “Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk” (2017). It's New Year's Eve 1984 when 85-year-old Lillian Boxfish leaves her Murray Hill apartment to take a looping walk downtown to a Chelsea party given by a young artist she has befriended.

Lillian is not just any old-timer. For many years, she was the highest paid woman in advertising in the world through her job as an ad copywriter at Macy's. The slogans and catchy poems that she published brought her into the limelight, and her super-active social life was fodder for the gossip columns. But now that she's in her ninth decade, there are only two activities that bring her joy—reviewing the choices she made in her life and walking the streets of Manhattan observing others’ lives.

These are also the things that will bring joy to the readers of Kathleen Rooney's wonderful novel. Rooney's fictional character is based on Margaret Fishback, the real Macy's advertising superstar of the 1930s. Through a friend, Rooney was privy to Fishback’s papers, journals, and out-of-print books when they were released to the public, and she realized what an electric personality she was discovering. She set out to create a fictional character, using the real advertising standout as inspiration, and using a walk on the last evening of 1985 as a way get to show us there were gutsy women in the early 20th century who were willing to break the mold.

Lillian insists on walking the long distance alone, though others attempt to convince her otherwise, through the threatening neighborhoods late into the night. Along the way, Lillian chats up strangers she comes across. She comforts a nervous, young security guard on patrol by the river. She outsmarts a trio of petty thieves who threateningly demand $5. She gives a sizable tip to a teenage clerk in a bodega who’s filling in all night for his immigrant parents.

Were the story simply about Lillian meandering through Manhattan, it would be a fun and satisfying read. But Rooney fleshes out a full character. One who proclaimed she would never be just a housewife and mother but finds a man who makes her heart sing and then loses him. One whose high-living takes an enormous toll on her mental health. One who finds deep friendships that last a lifetime or just a few minutes.

I loved this book and can guarantee that Lillian Boxfish will be with me for a long time.

"Anything is Possible" by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout has done it again. She has written still another novel that deserves all the attention a Pulitzer-Prize-winning author (for “Olive Kitteridge”) automatically gets. “Anything is Possible” (2017) is her stunning new book, categorized as a novel, but one that reads like a collection of short stories, peopled by folks in and around Amgash, Illinois. You have a head start if you’ve read Strout’s “My Name is Lucy Barton,” since Lucy and her family have a presence here as well. The Bartons were a poor, struggling family in Amgash before Lucy headed off to college and then to New York City where she is a writer. She is only featured in one story, but referred to periodically when someone reports about seeing her on TV or travels to attend a bookstore reading.

Strout’s gift as a writer comes not only from her seamlessly flowing narrative but also from her keen observation of people—how they speak, what they hold back, what they notice. Dottie, who runs a Bed and Breakfast, observes that one of her guests, Shelly, who bragged about the McMansion they had built, but was embarrassed about others’ criticism, “suffered only from the most common complaint of all: Life had simply not been what she thought it would be. Shelly had taken life’s disappointments and turned them into a house.”

The stories are filled with shocking secrets and revelations. With kindness and indifference. With change and refusal to change. One of Lucy’s friends’ mother has a long affair with their Spanish teacher. The husband of a shop owner returned from Vietnam and is never able to live with himself. A farmer loses everything when a raging fire destroys his property and becomes a school janitor who treats the neediest children with such tenderness. For the first time in years, Lucy visits her brother Pete who lives in squalor in their childhood home, and he scrubs away years of filth to make it nice for the sister he’s so proud of.

In a delightfully poignant chapter, “Mississippi Mary,” Angelina visits her almost eighty-year-old mother who lives with her new sixty-something Italian husband, in an apartment on the Mediterranean. She cannot hide her disdain for her mother’s decision to leave her old life and her family (and proudly wear a yellow string bikini). Justifying her decision, Mary says, “Look what Paolo’s done for me, honey. He downloaded all of Elvis’s songs onto my phone.” But in the quiet midnight moments as she reconnects with the sadness she’s brought to her daughter, she asks herself, “Who leaves a marriage after fifty-one years?” But the answer comes to her, and she knows her daughter could never understand “what it had been like to be so famished. Almost fifty years of being parched.”

As a conscientious book reviewer, I jotted down every character’s name and relationship to the others, reviewing it with each following chapter to keep the connections straight. Yet appreciating this wonderful book doesn’t require that. It asks us only to consider what might be hiding below the surface in their lives, and our lives, where anything is possible.

"A Man Called Ove" by Fredrik Backman

No one assigns the book I'm committed to review each month; I’m happily on my own, hoping to choose a book I can enthusiastically promote to other readers. (There’s no red- pencil-wielding English teacher in me, eager to point out failures of tone, structure, or plotting.) I took a risk this month with “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman.

There was nothing about it that drew me in—a Swedish blogger’s novel about a solitary, irascible compatriot who is hell-bent on suicide—yet I was intrigued by the enormous number of readerswho adored it (thank you, Amazon). Thousands of them. So in the interest of bringing variety into my column, I went for it. Backman writes, “Love is a strange thing. It takes you by surprise,” and that's what happened to me with Ove.

Ove is a retired, fifty-nine-year-old widower who lives in a row house in a small development and drives a Saab. (If you don’t think the make of the car is important, you don’t know Ove.) He’s the kind of man who wakes up automatically every morning at quarter to six and starts his day. He likes screwdrivers and oil filters. He faithfully bleeds radiators. He’s a man who regularly grumbles, “Nowadays nobody can…”

Life offers nothing to Ove, and he plans to do something about it. His boss had announced one day that he no longer needed to come to work, so his days are empty. He has no children and his beloved wife Sonja has recently died. “If anyone had asked, he would have told them that he never lived before he met her. And not after either.” Yet Ove is not very competent at ending his life. It’s not his fault, though, as much as it is the interruptions to his attempts by the locals.

Backman drums up a mix of characters (human and feline) that are delightful. A new next-door neighbor Parvaneh, whom Ove calls the Pregnant Foreign One, is a lively Iranian mother. She views Ove as an indispensable chauffer, handyman, verbal sparring partner, and as the need becomes clear, driving instructor. Her two little girls are singularly strong-minded about their neighbor. A young man who’s just told his homophobic father he’s gay moves in with Ove. A cat whom Ove rescues is ever-present, with a hilarious range of emotive reactions to his owner’s actions.

It seems that beneath Ove’s gruff exterior, which Backman plays with gleefully, Ove is a man who is decent, kind, and helpful. Readers can figure out early on that these people will bring life back to Ove, but that in no way spoils the surprisingly touching way Backman lets that unfold. Yes, it was tough reading the end of this heartwarming story with the tears in my eyes; I didn’t expect to, but I fell in love.