A review of Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

Book Review of Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

Readers jaded by the diffuse and flashy nature of much contemporary American fiction will welcome the taut brilliance of Paula Fox‘s novels. Desperate Characters is the best example of her controlled, but vivid studies of middle class disillusion.

Paula Fox’s characters inhabit a similar world to the milieu of those other purveyors of affluent misery, Richard Yates and John Updike. Like Yates’ Revolutionary Road, Desperate Characters has recently been rediscovered by a new generation and is back in print in the UK for the first time in years, having fallen into obscurity after its original publication in 1970.

Sophie and Otto Bentwood live an elegant, materially and culturally rich existence in Brooklyn Heights, a newly gentrified area of Brooklyn, New York. Otto has a successful legal practice and Sophie is a freelance translator, and on the surface they appear to be the perfect, sophisticated urban couple.

However, their complacency is shattered when Sophie is viciously bitten by a stray cat. Over the course of the next few days, the pain of Sophie’s wound, and the fear that the cat may have given her rabies, give voice to a previously suppressed anxiety, and their lives start to unravel rapidly.

The action takes place over just 3 days, during which time they attend a dinner party, make contact with former friends and lovers, pay a visit to the local hospital, take a disastrous trip to their summer house and discover the results of Sophie’s rabies tests.

Each of these scenes is infused with a creeping disquiet at the grinding poverty that exists on their doorstep – Otto is stopped in his tracks by a homeless black man rummaging through the rubbish bins outside their house – and this guilt at their own wealth is matched only by a fear that it will be taken away from them. As New York’s social fabric seems on the verge of collapse, so the mendacity and self-deception within their own marriage are increasingly exposed.

After the endless lists, brand-name-dropping and structural craziness of some contemporary American fiction – and don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of much of it – Fox’s work is like an invigorating ice cold shower.

The elegance of her sentences, the astringency of her dialogue and her mastery of structure are all inspiring, and yet her restraint is never at the expense of real feeling. This is a hugely moving meditation on the almost impossibility of finding true and lasting contentment.

Near the end, after a disastrous trip to their house on Long Island, when Sophie cries, “I wish someone would tell me how I can live”, it is impossible to remain unmoved. These are indeed Desperate Characters.

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