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Desperate Characters Paperback – March 30, 2015
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“[Desperate Characters]―tense, quick, prickling with suppressed panic―is very much of its time and has a lot to say to ours, too. If you’ve never read it, or if, like me, it’s been a while since you did, now is an excellent moment to pick it up.”
- Alexandra Schwartz, The New Yorker
“A masterwork of economical prose…Remarkable…[O]ne can only wonder who is more fatally deluded―the desperate characters of the Bentwoods' era or the hyperconfident ones of our own.”
- Andrew O'Hehir, Salon
- Charles Winecoff, Entertainment Weekly
“Packed with lucid insights.”
- Isabella Biedenharn, Entertainment Weekly
“A perfect short novel…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
“The first time I read Desperate Characters…I fell in love with it.”
- Jonathan Franzen
“Fox dissects a marriage and a social class with the sharpest of knives, cannily undermining not only one couple’s false pieties and deceptive comforts but our own as well.”
- Marisa Silver
About the Author
Paula Fox (1923―2017) was the author of Desperate Characters, The Widow’s Children, A Servant’s Tale, The God of Nightmares, Poor George, The Western Coast, and Borrowed Finery: A Memoir, among other books.
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Each time I reread Fox's masterpiece, which is receiving increasing yet still insufficient attention, I am struck by its remarkable balance of depth and breadth. If there are a handful of works of literature that are deserving of their own college course -- maybe Anna Karenina or Invisible Man or Ulysses -- then one could structure an entire college education around this compact and easily-accessible novel. On the surface, we are introduced to Sophie and Otto Bentwood of Brooklyn Heights, a forty-something couple in a desiccated marriage, on the day Sophie receives a potentially lethal cat bite. But the novel transcends this domestic pas-de-deux to grapple with complex, unsettling questions of social order and justice, race and religion, freedom and obligation. It is a book as relevant today -- maybe more so -- than at at the height of the social protest and disorder of the late 1960s, when it takes place. Not a book to be read for plot or diversion, but to be savored for its penetrating insights into marriage, friendship and civilization.
I recognize that art reflects taste, but the presence of one-star reviews of this book leaves me genuinely concerned for the future of literature.
However, I could not give the novel a score of 5, despite its many good qualities. I found the Bentwoods, both Sophie and Otto, to be highly privileged and spoiled. Otto Bentwoods' `know-it-all' responses to almost everything his wife says was irritating. The novel is limited in time, a single weekend, and focuses primarily on the break between Otto and his legal partner, Charlie. These two men appeared to have different styles that complimented each other in both their friendship and legal practice, however I got the impression that after many years, they were somewhat sick of each other.
The Bentwoods are highly-educated, wealthy, liberal, and Fox does a good job of showing the intrusion of the real world into their existence. As Fox describes it, the upper class can use their wealth to isolate them from the messiness of poverty but it creeps back in, much like the nasty tom cat that bites Sophie in the first pages of the novel. I once read a quote by Dawn Powell, that youth float on the illusion of luxury. Fox would expand that sensibility to indicate that the upper classes also wish to float on that same illusion but for those over 40 the illusion is about more than luxury, it is about life's consistent and nagging barriers, irritations, complications. The cat bite brings all this messy reality back into Sophie's life.
The book is very well written and is admirable in its ability to limit time, place, person, situation for an examination of a situation that generalizes beyond the limitations Fox has created for her art.
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and it may have been because I should have read it...Read more