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.
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