Category Archives: Fox Paula

The Widow’s Children by Paula Fox

A couple of years ago I read Desperate Characters – a 1970 novel by the American writer Paula Fox – in which a cat bite sparks a crisis in the lives of a privileged middle-class couple, setting in motion a series of events which threatens to undermine their seemingly harmonious existence. There is a crisis of sorts too in The Widow’s Children, Fox’s later novel of family dysfunction, first published in 1976. This is an acutely observed story of longstanding slights and prejudices, of things left unsaid or buried beneath the social niceties of family gatherings, of trying to live up to the burden of expectations – both those we demand of ourselves and those imposed on us by others. It is an excellent book, one that deserves to be much better-known.

Fox’s novel could be likened to a play, a deliberately claustrophobic chamber piece that plays out in an extended sequence of scenes, each one denoted by a new chapter. The cast is small and finely sketched, allowing us to observe each character in some detail.

Central to the story is Laura Clapper (née Maldonada), a fifty-five-year old prima donna, now married to her second husband, a rather foolish, hard-drinking man by the name of Desmond. Laura is impulsive, outspoken and manipulative, a woman with virtually no self-awareness and very little understanding of her impact on those around her. As Peter Rice, her longstanding editor friend observes at one point, ‘she actually can’t judge her own behaviour […]; she explodes, then wonders at the flying glass’. For Desmond, life with Laura is exhausting, for it is he who has to pick up the pieces when she blows up.

Completing the core cast are Laura’s brother, Carlos, a faded music critic, openly gay and playing the field; Clara, her timid, self-effacing daughter from her first marriage; and Eugenio, Laura’s other brother, a rather distracted individual who appears in one of the later scenes. Also central to the story, although we never meet her in person, is Alma Maldonada, mother of Laura, Carlos and Eugenio, an elderly widow who resides in a nursing home.

As the novel opens, Clara, Carlos and Peter Rice are preparing to join Laura and Desmond for drinks in their hotel room to say goodbye to the couple before they embark on an extended holiday to Africa. Before the guests arrive, we learn that earlier in the afternoon Laura received a phone call from the care home informing her that Alma had just died; but instead of telling Desmond the news, she keeps the information firmly to herself, showing no signs of sorrow or distress in the process. If anything, the opposite could be said to be true – Laura seems to relish in the knowledge of this secret fact, something that she alone is privy to, possibly to reveal at a vital moment during the evening ahead.

Her mind had been empty of thought; she had known only that something implacable had taken hold of her. And she had felt a half-crazed pleasure and an impulse to shout that she knew and possessed this thing that no one else knew, this consequential fact, hard and real among the soft accumulations of meaningless events of which their planned trip to Africa was one other, to be experienced only through its arrangements, itinerary, packing, acquisition of medicines for intestinal upsets, books to read, clock, soap, passports, the husk of action surrounding the motionless center of their existence together. (p. 18)

And so this bizarre evening begins during which the members of the Maldonada clan dance around one another in a strained sequence of manoeuvres during which various tensions become apparent and old grievances are revealed. (As of yet, there has been no mention of Alma’s death.) As Clara puts it here, the interactions between individuals are characterised by a marked gulf between outward behaviours and inner feelings, all in the name of keeping the charade of ‘family’ going. But to what end one might ask, especially with someone like Laura orchestrating the show.

In no other company more than among these Spaniards was Clara so conscious of a discrepancy between surface talk and inner preoccupation. They sped from one posture to another, eliciting with amused cries each other’s biases, pretending to discover anew the odd notions each harbored, amusing themselves nearly to death! Until Laura, with a hard question, thrust a real sword through the paper props, and there would be for a second, a minute, the startled mortified silence of people caught out in a duplicity for which they could find no explanation. Then, with what indulgence, what tenderness, Laura rescued them, sometimes. (p. 41)

As the evening plays out, we learn more about the backstory of each character, their individual flaws and imperfections, their missed chances and lost opportunities. We discover that Clara was abandoned by Laura as a young baby, only to be brought up by the impoverished Alma in her makeshift home in Brooklyn, a fact that has coloured Clara’s relationship with her formidable mother ever since. I love this passage describing Clara’s arrival at the drinks gathering, a moment that conveys so much about her perceived inferiority to Laura, and in so few words.

“Hello,” said Laura, bringing up the greeting from the deepest reach of her voice, a plangent, thrilling annunciation to which, Clara knew, no response would measure up, felt with a sinking heart that her own “hello” would weigh less than dust on such a scale of tonal drama, and so only held out her hand. Her mother gripped her fingers strongly for an instant, then withdrew her hand to a cigarette. (p. 19)

Clara also experiences a sense of unease about the state of her relationship with Alma, reluctant as she is to visit her at the care home even though she feels obliged to do so. Perhaps as a consequence of the nature of her fractured family, Clara seeks affection elsewhere. There is a man in her life; but as he married with children, the chances of her achieving a fulfilling relationship with him seem cruelly out of reach.

Carlos too feels the sting of his sister’s gaze; his rather sad and empty life is revealed in this insightful reflection, one of many in the book.

…Carlos would fold his hands behind his head and lie there, tears running down his cheeks, thinking of his used-up life, of lovers dead or gone, of investments made unwisely, of his violent sister who might telephone him at any minute and, with her elaborate killer’s manners, in her beautiful deep voice, make some outrageous demand upon him, making clear she knew not only the open secrets of his life but the hidden ones, knew about his real shiftlessness, his increasing boredom with sexual pursuit, his unappeased sexual longing, his terror of age. (p. 39)

Perhaps most notably, we also hear more about Alma’s story, how she emigrated from Spain to Cuba at the age of sixteen to marry a much older man she had never met before; how she neglected the Maldonada children when they were young; and how, following the death of her husband, she fled from Cuba to the USA where the family struggled to rebuild their lives. As a consequence, there is a noticeable sense of displacement running through this novel, an undercurrent of shifting circumstances and identities, which adds to the fault lines that have emerged over time.

I’m not going to reveal if and how the news of Alma’s death comes out; that would spoil the story, I think. Nevertheless, when the party move to a nearby restaurant for dinner, it becomes clear that Laura may have been more affected by the day’s events than had appeared at first sight. Interestingly, in the second half of the novel, the focus shifts away from Laura towards the male characters in the story, particularly Peter Rice – the ‘half-scant life’ he has settled for is touchingly revealed.

All in all, The Widow’s Children is a very accomplished novel – razor sharp and precise in style, brittle and unflinching in its sensibilities. The writing is superb, packed full of insightful observations on the inner truths of our lives and the fronts we put up to conform to expected social conventions. There are frequent references to predatory birds and animals throughout the book – the core symbolism is an obvious one.

I’ll finish with a final quote that caught my eye, this one from the ‘Restaurant’ chapter of the book.

Clara grew aware, with an easing of her spirit, that there were other people not much more than an arm’s length away, small islands of people at their tables, among whom waiters eddied and shifted, bent and straightened up. Some of the diners looked domestic, some festive, and some were silent. How, she wondered, did this table appear to all those others? In the subdued ambiguity of the restaurant lighting, the sustained clamor of conversation and eating, would anyone glancing casually at the Clapper table have observed the ravages of the battles that had raged among them. And was the apparent placidity and self-satisfaction of all those other people only a contrived show? (p. 123)

The Widow’s Children is published by Flamingo; personal copy.

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

I can’t quite recall how I first heard of American writer Paula Fox, possibly via a conversation on Twitter or through the blogosphere, but either way she sounded interesting. First published in 1970, Desperate Characters was her second novel. After being out of print for several years, it was reissued in 1999 and is now regarded by some as a potential classic of 20th-century American literature.

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Set in New York in the late 1960s, this short novel follows a weekend in the lives of Sophie and Otto Bentwood, a childless upper middle-class couple living in Brooklyn. The Bentwoods are privileged; they have plenty of money, a Mercedes-Benz sedan, and a second home on Long Island. In many ways, they exist in a world cocooned from poverty, social deprivation and disorder.

One Friday evening, as the Bentwoods are dining at home, a familiar stray cat reappears at their back door. Sophie takes pity on the cat, gives it a saucer of milk and strokes its back, an action that prompts the creature to bite her. Here’s how it happens:

She smiled, wondering how often, if ever before, the cat had felt a friendly human touch, and she was still smiling as the cat reared up on its hind legs, even as it struck at her with extended claws, smiling right up to that second when it sank its teeth into the back of her left hand and hung from her flesh so that she nearly fell forward, stunned and horrified, yet conscious enough of Otto’s presence to smother the cry that arose in her throat as she jerked her hand back from that circle of barbed wire. (pg. 6)

That’s a great passage. It contains so many different elements: the hints about Sophie’s character; the danger lurking close to home; the sense of violation.

At first, Sophie does little to attend to the bite. She is reluctant to seek medical treatment, passing the incident off as ‘nothing’, even though deep inside she feels vitally wounded in some way. Having fed the cat on at least one previous occasion, she feels bemused and somewhat betrayed by its attack. As time passes fear begins to set in: her hand swells up; signs of infection start to appear; someone mentions the possibility of rabies. All this only serves to unnerve Sophie; even everyday objects start to appear somewhat unsettling.

The living room looked smudged, flat, Objects, their outlines beginning to harden in the growing light, had a shadowy, totemic menace. Chairs, tables, and lamps seemed to have only just assumed their accustomed positions. There was an echo in the air, a peculiar pulsation as of interrupted motion. Of course, it was the hour, the light, her fatigue. Only living things do harm. […] Who would pity her in her childish terror, her evasion, her pretence that nothing much had happened? Life had been soft for so long a time, edgeless and spongy, and now, here in all its surface banality and submerged horror was this idiot event – her own doing – this undignified confrontation with mortality. (pg. 47)

One of the most striking things about this novel is the way in which Fox uses the cat bite as a catalyst, a starting point for further exploration. In effect, the incident is the first of a number of disturbing events that threaten to destabilise the Bentwoods’ seemingly harmonious existence over the course of the weekend. For instance, Sophie answers the telephone to a heavy breather; a stone is thrown through the window of a friend’s house; their holiday home is vandalised. One by one the episodes pile up. In one memorable scene, a visibly distressed black man knocks at the Bentwoods’ door, pleads to use their phone and ends up borrowing money from them. In many respects, it feels like an invasion of their bourgeois world.

Desperate Characters is a subtle and very effective character study; slowly but surely Fox peels away the layers to expose Sophie’s vulnerability and Otto’s failings. In some ways it reminded me a little of Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the WeddingI didn’t love it quite as much as Cassandra, but that said, Baker’s novel sets a very high bar. In the end, I was left wondering what it is that Sophie fears the most. She clearly dreads the prospect of injections, but is she more unsettled by the threat of rabies or by the reality of her life with Otto? As we follow Sophie over the course of the weekend, we learn of her previous affair with a publisher named Francis, a relationship that obviously meant a great deal to her. When the affair ended, and Francis returned to his wife, Sophie was left feeling as though she had suffered ‘an irreversible loss’. In this scene, she reflects on her marriage to Otto, a man in the midst of his own troubles:

If all these months, she had so ardently lived a life apart from Otto without his sensing something, it meant that their marriage had run down long before she had met Francis; either that or worse – once she had stepped outside rules, definitions, there were none. Constructions had no true life. Ticking away inside the carapace of ordinary life and its sketchy agreements was anarchy. (pg. 62)

Fox uses contrasts to good effect throughout the story. There is a striking difference between the order of the Bentwoods’ house and the chaos Otto and Sophie encounter when they call upon Mr Haynes, the somewhat unreliable caretaker of their Long Island retreat. Here’s a brief excerpt from the description of the Haynes’ house, a property that looks as if it has been ‘assembled by a centrifuge’.

Rubber tires leaned against every surface. Cans, tools, pails, lengths of hose, rusted grills, and summer furniture were spread out in front of the house, presenting a scene of monkeylike distraction – as though each object had been snatched up and then dropped, a second’s forgetfulness erasing all memory of original intention. A clothesline was strung across the porch and from it hung a few limp rags. A bicycle with twisted handlebars lay against the steps. And from a small chimney black smoke poured as if, inside the house, the inhabitants were hurriedly burning up still more repellent trash before it drowned them. (pg 131-132)

There is a broader significance to the story, too. It seems to signal a crisis in a certain type of American life, an unravelling of the American Dream in a changing world. I’ll finish with a final quote from Charlie, Otto’s former business partner and fellow lawyer (the dissolution of their partnership adds another element of tension to the narrative). Even though he is alone with Sophie, Charles’ comments refer to both her and her husband:

“You don’t know what’s going on,” he said at last. “You are out of the world, tangled in personal life. You won’t survive this…what’s happening now. People like you…stubborn and stupid and drearily enslaved by introspection while the foundation of their privilege is being blasted out from under them.” He looked calm. He had gotten even. (pg. 39)

For the interested, here’s a link a profile of Paula Fox published in The Guardian.

Desperate Characters is published by Flamingo, an imprint of HarperCollins. Source: personal copy. Book 11/20, #TBR20 round 2.