I was fortunate enough to interview Paula Fox a few weeks ago for The Rumpus (it should be out in a few weeks or so). I just re-read her most acclaimed novel Desperate Characters, written in 1970. It moved me yet again. The beginning is simple. A childless couple live in a Brooklyn brownstone and the woman, Sophie, pets a stray in their backyard as her husband Otto sits in the living room.
She smiled, wondering how often, if ever before, the cat had felt a friendly human touch, and she was still smiling as the cat reared up on its hind legs, even as it struck at her with extended claws, smiling right up to that second when it sank its teeth into the back of her left hand and hung from her flesh so that she nearly fell forward, stunned and horrified, yet conscious enough of Otto’s presence to smother the cry that arose in her throat as she jerked her hand back from that circle of barbed wire.
From this the couple is caught in a state of anxiety as Sophie’s hand swells, but she doesn’t take care of it right away. They go to a party and later as the host examines the bite upstairs with Sophie, a rock is thrown through his window. It is 1969 or thereabouts. The war is raging on, the neighborhood is falling apart. Otto, a bitter lawyer, has just broken up with his partner. Leaving the house one evening, Fox describes him as being, “…drawn toward [his home]. He yearned to throw open the door he had only just locked, to catch the house empty. It was, he thought, a little like the wish to be sentient at one’s own funeral.”
The language, the characters, the story – they are all pitch perfect and at 156 pages the novel is very digestible to the modern preference towards compression. Also read The Widow’s Children or anyone of her other novels. There are twenty some books for children and young adults too, including The Slave Dancer. As well, two memoirs, Borrowed Finery and The Coldest Winter.
Here is a wonderful clip of her being interviewed by Italian TV. The story at the end is heartbreaking.