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Desperate Characters: A Novel (Norton Paperback Fiction) Paperback – May 17, 1999


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Product Details

  • Series: Norton Paperback Fiction
  • Paperback: 156 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (May 17, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 039331894X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393318944
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 0.4 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (56 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #358,732 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Meet the Bentwoods, Sophie and Otto, "both just over forty," living in Brooklyn sometime in the '60s with neither hope nor children to encourage them to work on their suffocating marriage. Such are the central subjects of Paula Fox's enthralling Desperate Characters, first published to much acclaim in 1970. The novel's action unfolds in a single weekend, and includes Otto's torturous breakup with his longtime business partner, Charlie, and a visit the Bentwoods make to their country home, which they find vandalized. Everything pivots around an occurrence so ordinary as to make us marvel at the power it wields under Fox's brilliant pressure: a cat bite.

Despite Otto's protests, Sophie puts out a dish for a stray that roams the Bentwoods' neighborhood--an area which is also home to enormous poverty, and in which they, in their renovated townhouse, sit like distant royalty. The cat sinks its teeth into her hand and instantly we are plunged into the heart of what plagues every aspect of this couple's lives: the threat of rabies. Where the cat is concerned, it's literal rabies, but the book is also steeped in the sense that a kind of social rabies lurks just outside the Bentwoods' and indeed the whole world's door. As Sophie suddenly realizes at one point: "Ticking away inside the carapace of ordinary life and its sketchy agreements was anarchy."

Throughout Fox's gorgeously crafted, unflinching portrait of a dying marriage and a country at war with itself, the Bentwoods fight the desire to self-destruct like everything around them. At one point, Otto screams at Sophie: "What in God's name do you want? Do you want Charlie to murder me? Do you wish the farmhouse had been burned down?... Do you want to be rabid?" She doesn't, of course, but in a certain way, that outcome makes sense. "'God, if I am rabid, I am equal to what is outside,' she said out loud, and felt an extraordinary relief as though, at last, she'd discovered what it was that could create a balance between the quiet, rather vacant progression of the days she spent in this house, and those portents that lit up the dark at the edge of her own existence." How fortunate and rare to discover such a perfect articulation of the human condition. --Melanie Rehak

Review

Desperate Characters is, simply, a perfect short novel. A few characters, a small stretch of time; setting and action tightly confined—and yet, as in Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich, everything crucial within our souls bared.” (Andrea Barrett)

“This perfect novel about pain is as clear, and as wholly believable, and as healing, as a fever dream.” (Frederick Busch)

“Brilliant…[Fox] is one of the most attractive writers to come our way in a long, long time.” (The New Yorker)

Customer Reviews

I think complex characters make a good book great.
H. Tosch
Until I read this book, I thought they only happened to me!
Rick Mitchell
The writing is excellent and the imagery very imaginative.
jt52

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

40 of 42 people found the following review helpful By James W. Curnutt, Jr. on February 11, 2001
Format: Paperback
I first read Paula Fox's extraordinary novel, "Desperate Characters," in 1971. I was (and am) a voracious reader of fiction. Never had I read anything that was as precise and powerful as this perfect little jewel of a novel. This story of a middle-aged New York couple (Otto and Sophie Bentwood) who,although seemingly self-aware,capable (He is a successful attorney; she is elegant and self-deprecatingly witty, a translator of French literature - today we might stereotype them as yuppies)and 'liberal,'find their image of their lives and their sense of stability fractured by a freak accident and a split with Otto's law partner and longtime friend, is so remarkably alive that, at the age of 16,never having set foot in New York City, I could see their faces, their furniture, their friends, their life. I also got my first true glimpse at how it must look and feel like to begin the process of evaluating a life already half lived, the joys and the regrets.
Set in early 1969 (it is spring, and driving through Queens to their summer home on Long Island, Sophie sees an old political poster plastered to a wall:"..the face of an Alabama presidential candidate stared with sooty dead eyes...claiming this territory as his own."), the Bentwoods worry about the possible decline of their Brooklyn neighborhood, and argue about the extraordinary changes in American culture and politics. But their concern, as Ms. Fox, with her restrained,exacting dialogue and painterly descriptions, so vividly illustrates, is with maintaining a cocoon around their lives; what Otto's former law partner, Charlie Russel, refers to, when, early in the novel, he appears at the Bentwood home at 3:00 a.m.
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36 of 42 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 18, 2001
Format: Paperback
It is difficult to believe that "Desperate Characters", originally published in 1970, was out of print more than a decade. So much for the erstwhile judgment of the publishing establishment, for this novel is a near perfect work of fiction that can rightfully be considered one of the finest American novels of this century.
"Desperate Characters" tells the story of Otto and Sophie Bentwood, a childless couple in their 40s ("Sophie was two months older than Otto") living in a fashionably renovated Brooklyn brownstone circa 1970. They have a high income and can purchase "pretty much" whatever they want. Their bookcase holds the complete works of Goethe and two shelves of French poets. They have a Mercedes-Benz sedan and a Victorian farmhouse on Long Island. Otto is a lawyer and Sophie a translator. They are, by all outward appearances, living the perfect life. It is the genius of Paula Fox to lay bare the underlying disturbances, the morbid self-consciousness and despair, the ennui, that undermines this seemingly ordered world. "Desperate Characters", a short novel set over a few days, is literary dissection of the highest order, a tightly written masterpiece that leaves the reader uneasy and disturbed.
Things begin to unravel early in the story. Sophie, feeding a stray cat, is bitten. Life no longer seems so perfect now, the fear of rabies intruding. When they leave the security of their brownstone, they find "refuse everywhere, a tide that rose but barely ebbed." There were "beer bottles, beer cans, liquor bottles, candy wrappers, crushed cigarette packs, caved-in boxes that held detergents, rags, newspapers, curlers, string, plastic bottles, a shoe here and there, dog feces." The world outside is disorderly, threatening, rabid.
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23 of 26 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 22, 1999
Format: Paperback
You may never have heard of Paula Fox (her novels have never sold well; her children's fiction is for, well, children; but her granddaughter is Courtney Love), but, in a perfect world, you would have, many times over. She is a brilliant prose stylist--one of the surest hands in modern fiction. Desperate Characters is remarkably powerful. Fox's strenth is her ability to fashion absolutely tight plotlines that revolve around ordinary events with diamond-hard, compressed language. Everything is soaked in an existential menace. It's no wonder she has influenced a whole generation of young writers (David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Lethem etc.). Trust me, buy this book!
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Ronald St. John on November 15, 2000
Format: Paperback
Masterfully written but bleak pyschological study of American angst circa 1970, told through three and one half days in the life of a 40ish woman living in a gentrified section of Brooklyn. If any of the various tragedies besetting our bland heroine would rise to some epic level, even that would offer some relief from her oppressive ennui. As it is, each affront is banal and ambiguous, and she and her husband are trapped in a hostile world in which nameless enemies besiege them with pointless acts of small destruction.
There is so much in this book to be observed and analyzed that someone will have to pay me or give me some college credit before I make even a tentative attempt. Suffice it to say that the book is bleak and depressing -- and you simply must read it.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By "botatoe" on May 6, 2002
Format: Paperback
It is difficult to believe that "Desperate Characters", originally published in 1970, was out of print more than a decade. So much for the erstwhile judgment of the publishing establishment, for this novel is a near perfect work of fiction that can rightfully be considered one of the finest American novels of this century.
"Desperate Characters" tells the story of Otto and Sophie Bentwood, a childless couple in their 40s ("Sophie was two months older than Otto") living in a fashionably renovated Brooklyn brownstone circa 1970. They have a high income and can purchase "pretty much" whatever they want. Their bookcase holds the complete works of Goethe and two shelves of French poets. They have a Mercedes-Benz sedan and a Victorian farmhouse on Long Island. Otto is a lawyer and Sophie a translator. They are, by all outward appearances, living the perfect life. It is the genius of Paula Fox to lay bare the underlying disturbances, the morbid self-consciousness and despair, the ennui, that undermines this seemingly ordered world. "Desperate Characters", a short novel set over a few days, is literary dissection of the highest order, a tightly written masterpiece that leaves the reader uneasy and disturbed.
Things begin to unravel early in the story. Sophie, feeding a stray cat, is bitten. Life no longer seems so perfect now, the fear of rabies intruding. When they leave the security of their brownstone, they find "refuse everywhere, a tide that rose but barely ebbed." There were "beer bottles, beer cans, liquor bottles, candy wrappers, crushed cigarette packs, caved-in boxes that held detergents, rags, newspapers, curlers, string, plastic bottles, a shoe here and there, dog feces." The world outside is disorderly, threatening, rabid.
Anomie and uncertainty seem now to press everywhere.
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