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Borrowed Finery: A Memoir Hardcover – October 1, 2001

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Editorial Reviews Review

In this elegant, wrenching memoir, Paula Fox looks at her childhood with the same detached acceptance of life's arbitrary cruelties that informs such acclaimed novels as Desperate Characters. Born in 1923, she was abandoned at a Manhattan foundling home by her alcoholic father at the insistence of her panic-stricken, 19-year-old mother. Paul and Elsie Fox were in no way prepared to take on the responsibility of a child, although they couldn't leave her alone either. Fox's austere narrative unflinchingly describes the couple swooping down on their daughter, who was being raised in upstate New York by a kindly minister, for visits that were as alarming as they were intermittent. For reasons best known to themselves (Fox does not attempt to analyze their motives), they removed her from the minister's home when she was 6, then bounced her among relatives, schools, and their own disordered care for the next 12 years, from Hollywood and Long Island to Cuba and Montreal. The restraint with which Fox describes these traumas is a reproach to all those maudlin memoirs of family dysfunction that have been so prevalent in recent years. She demonstrates that you can write about painful experiences honestly without wallowing in self-pity, and her prose here is as perfectly calibrated as it is in her novels. Thank goodness that this sad story is leavened by a running counterpoint of short passages showing young Paula discovering the pleasure of words and the power of literature. Though she too had an unwanted baby at an early age, the book closes with a moving scene of the author's reunion with the daughter she gave up for adoption. --Wendy Smith

From Publishers Weekly

Newbery Award-winning novelist Fox (A Servant's Tale) lived a rather accidental, devastating childhood. Her Jazz Age parents dropped her at an orphanage shortly after her birth in 1923, from which she was rescued by a kindly clergyman and passed along, as in a "fire brigade," to various "rescuers" odd relatives or her parents' drinking buddies, mostly. Her scriptwriter daddy, a happy drunk, cared but was careless. Mom, on the other hand, with her "cold radiant smile," was openly rejecting. Her occasional reluctant meetings with Fox felt "as if we were being continually introduced to each other." No small wonder, then, that at age 21, Fox surrendered her own daughter for adoption. This could have been another Mommy Dearest, except that Fox is elegantly understated, relying on well-chosen detail and striking images to tell her tale. A nasty auntie crochets in "colors that suggested mud or blood or urine" and keeps her work in a sack with handles like "copperhead snakes." Her mother's one contribution to her education is teaching her solitaire. A childhood beau walks "lurching to the side like the knight's move in chess." Visiting her dying mother, Fox can't bear to use a toilet her mother might have used, and flees outdoors to use a tree. It would all be unbearably melancholic (… la Jean Rhys), except that Fox survives. The hard-won truths of her youth form the basis for the sensitive focus on family dynamics that characterizes her children's fiction notably Blowfish Live in the Sea. Fox deserves a comeback, even if this slim memoir is too tragic for popular taste.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.; 1st edition (October 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805068155
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805068153
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,429,660 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on October 15, 2002
Format: Hardcover
In the unhappy-childhood sweepstakes, practically everyone I know is a contender. My father ran off with a neighbor when I was 14. My mother drank. This friend was beaten. That one was sexually abused. It's a wonder we all made it to adulthood. But we did, and with a sense of ourselves that may be keener because of the pain we grew up with. Kids who are hurt become, inevitably, observers --- they must master their feelings, anticipate attacks, live with abandonment. They must see clearly.
This Paula Fox does, without self-pity and with enormous elegance and understatement. In BORROWED FINERY, the story of the first 20-odd years of her life, she shows us pathological parents, remote from the normal pathways of love: She was barely allowed to be a child at all, in the ordinary sense of being nourished and cared for. It is her mother and father who are the kids in this book: a reckless, feckless, quick-witted, handsome, and thoroughly self-destructive pair. Having abandoned Fox at birth, they proceeded to waltz in and out of her life --- never really taking responsibility, but not letting her forget them, either.
Fox's parents did not hit or rape or starve her. They simply weren't interested and were not often present. And their behavior, when they were there, was so antiparental (unparental is not strong enough) that it boggles the mind: Upon hearing Fox observe that her room-service tray had no milk on it, her father threw the dinner out of the window. She went to bed hungry. He borrowed (and never repaid) fifty dollars from her when she was 11 or 12 and took back a typewriter he'd just given her. Her mother once "fixed" Fox's toothache by taking her on a terrifying car ride through the mountains.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By J. Rosenberg on March 5, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Amazon reviewers who didn't like this book, didn't get it. It's not supposed to be a deep character study or a search for reasons and answers. It is an evocation of a child's life, bits and pieces she remembers because of their impact. I think it was beautifully written. That the parents were irresponsible is without question, but finding out why they were or how they should have been punished isn't the point.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 20, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I had never even heard of this author and a friend was reading it at work and couldnt put it down. Immediately I was taken over by the story and her writing which made me feel I was right there living and experiencing what life was like for her.Her characters are so true and she writes with such honesty and wonderful description. I ended up ordering every other book she has written for adults and then when I asked other people about her it seems the whole world has read Paula Fox and loved her work except for me. IM so glad to have discovered her and reading her memoir makes reading her other books even more special.Even Oprah recommended her. I just keep passing Borrowed Finery on to everyone I know and so far they have had the same reactions as I have. I think this book should win alot of awards.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 11, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is one of the most moving and brilliantly written memoirs I have read in several years. Fox writes with a brevity that is breathtaking;this book is filled with prose,humor,truthtelling and a remarkable acceptance of the major life blows she was dealt.I can see why she has won so many awards with her writing and why this book was on the Times top ten.I have ordered copies for most of my friends and know I will read it many times over.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Bucherwurm on November 28, 2002
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Paula Fox is the writer of six fine novels that have just come back into print. Borrowed Finery is a memoir of her life that provides us with a collection of small episodes extending from childhood through her teen years. I hate reading memoirs, but decided to read this one to get a better understanding of Paula Fox the Novelist. Nothing much pleasant transpired during these years; the brief incidents that we hear about are, perhaps, the only ones she feels at ease telling.
Her parents simply didn't want to raise her. Father was a screenwriter, and mother was offended by a daughter who disrupted her life by being born. Both were heavy drinkers. Ms Fox's father seemed to have some affection for her, while the mother reacted to Paula as if someone had let some mangy, un-housebroken dog into the room. Young Paula was sent to live with a variety of people during her life, and she never knew how long she would spend with any of her caretakers. For some time she was taken by her grandmother to her great grandmother's Cuban plantation where she was left totally on her own. She got up, went to school, came home, talked to some of the servants and went to bed without any contact with the grandparents.
It was a sad life for a child, but Ms Fox grew up, married, and wrote 21 children's books and her excellent novels. By the way, she is also Courtney Love's grandmother.
Borrowed Finery also provides some insight into the mind behind the characters and themes in her books. My suggestion: read her memoir and her novels.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Peggy Vincent on June 26, 2003
Format: Paperback
Hard to take all this in, how Paula Fox not only survived, but in some ways thrived and lived to write a memoir of her wrenching childhood. Her nutso parents (loving but out-od-his-depth father, cold and rejecting mother; both more interested in their own lives than in her) dropped her at an orphanage shortly after her birth in 1923. A series of mostly kindly people passed her on down the line, but of course there were scars.
From the distance of old age, Fox writes with careful prose and elegant understatement about her unimaginably tragic youth.
Beautiful, and very, very sad.
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