The Widow’s Children, Paula Fox’s eerily intense 1976 novel about a nasty family evening, begins with a scene of arming for battle. Clara Hansen, a twenty-nine-year-old single woman in New York City, is getting ready for a gathering in the hotel room of her mother, Laura Maldonada, a monstrously caustic aging Spanish beauty about to embark on a cruise to Africa with her rich, boozy second husband. Normally Clara dresses “defensively,” but tonight she chooses a silk gown, a gauntlet thrown down. Halfway through cocktails, Laura grabs the hem with her clawlike hands and her face freezes in judgment at the label, Christian Dior. Mother and daughter have battled, quietly, over clothes before. Clara’s Uncle Eugenio, absent from this demented dinner party, is a collector of rich old ladies, one of whom died in a tower suite at the old Ritz and left Clara a mysterious trunk: perfumed things from Worth, “chiffon embroidered with silver thread, sachets, a small fur wrap, unworn lingerie covered with lace.” But Laura had taken them for herself since, she tells Clara, they “would not have suited your age”—too luxurious, and too old-fashioned.
Later at dinner, looking around the restaurant, the men “so odd with their inflated haircombs, vaguely bovine, so dandified,” Clara thinks to herself there is something “insipid, hollow in all this dressing.” But she herself is costumed for an entrance in a tightly structured drama that reads like a cross between No Exit and All About Eve, compressed by the iron Aristotelian unities of time and place into a work of art so singular as to be almost beyond explication. Clara had “read the ancient Greeks during the one year she’d gone to college, and concluded that the house of Atreus was, and always had been, full of boarders like herself.” A child who “thieved her way into life” after her mother’s four abortions, abandoned to caretakers immediately after birth, Clara is an outsider in the company of her own family, a “spirit so bewildered she dared not lose track of the dullest conversation lest she miss some clue that would explain her own condition to herself.”
But the conversation in a Paula Fox novel is never dull, and the scenes here, labeled mostly according to their settings (“Drinks,” “Corridor,” “Restaurant”) crackle with insult and insight that pin the characters to a wall like the blades of a knifethrower. Peter Rice, a discontented publisher with a masochistic attachment to Laura, is the evening’s other designated outsider, “a middle-aged man on a moral bender that costs him nothing.” He is the Maldonadas’ audience, but he is also, as the title of the final chapter makes clear, a messenger, assigned to spread the news that Laura has kept from the others all evening—that her elderly mother, an Iberian child bride whisked to Cuba at age sixteen, only to end up in a squalid house in Queens after the revolution of 1933, has finally died. Laura’s silence is inexplicable, and indeed Fox doesn’t try to explain it. She’s interested less in psychology than in the deforming straitjacket of character. Though they move among the meticulously described details of our world, these characters emerge not from families or schools or houses with numbered addresses but from some primeval forest of half-human, half-mythical beasts.
Now, with the recent appearance of Borrowed Finery, Fox’s remarkable memoir, we see that these implausible characters in fact come from the realm of the proverbial truth stranger than fiction. The Widow’s Children shares many of the elements of Fox’s own history: the baby abandoned by a monstrously vain, manipulative mother and charming drunkard father; the lost family plantation in Cuba; the Spanish grandmother and bachelor uncles; the florid anti-Semitism that papers over rumors of the family’s Jewish ancestry; the hurled glassware; even that purloined trunk of clothes from Worth, left to Paula by a distant relative who dies alone in her luxury suite. But unlike the emotionally extravagant reimaginings of the novel, which drifts freely among the various characters’ thoughts, Fox’s terse paragraphs seem to contain only what was truly remembered, a succession of barely connected episodes encased in the hard amber of indelible image, and long since absorbed into the mind’s eye.
Borrowed Finery restores the memoir of atrocious American girlhood, a genre so tattered in recent years by garrulous self-justification and parental atrocities offered at garage-sale prices, to a condition of dignity and elegance. If the daughter had it bad, Fox knows just how much the writer has it good. Though Fox is writing about herself, she’s not interested in making herself a sympathetic character, or indeed presenting herself as much of a character at all. (Like her memoir, Fox’s novels—remarkable for their eccentric, often blackly funny minor characters and odd anecdotes heard on the wing—are often grounded in the consciousness of outsiders or quiet watchers.) It’s hard to imagine Fox boasting, as Mary McCarthy, another mercilessly acid novelist who spent her childhood as an orphan shuttled between caretakers, does in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, that a teacher once declared her to be just like Lord Byron, “brilliant, but unsound.” When the artist William Zorach, whom Fox studied with at the Art Students’ League, intones that she has “a wild talent,” it’s repeated only as a joke—on Zorach, and on herself.
Family, someone remarks in The Widow’s Children, “is a jigsaw of misery fitting together perfectly.” Fox’s own chaotic early life, described mostly in short, intensely imagistic paragraphs, is a story of outrageous characters and scarcely believable scraps of experience that aren’t forced to add up. A few days after her birth in 1923, Paula was abandoned at an orphanage. Eventually she went to live with a kindly minister in Balmville, New York, an edenic Hudson Valley town of steepled white churches and old stone houses and cleansing summer storms. The minister, “Uncle Elwood,” is a kindly man, author of parish histories and a newspaper column called “Little-Known Facts about Well-Known People.” He gives Paula books and takes her to visit Revolutionary sites (he quotes to her George Washington’s alleged deathbed question, “Is it well with the child?”), and teaches her the implicit lesson “that everything counted and that a word spoken as meant contained a mysterious energy that could awaken thought and feeling in both speaker and listener.” Her father, Paul, a Hollywood screenwriter (Graham Greene once called his Last Train from Madrid “the worst movie I ever saw”), sends money and makes occasional barnstorming visits. Her mother, the awful Elsie, is an aspiring actress who mostly appears here as if she’s auditioning for the part of Medea. “Either she goes or I do,” Elsie tells Paul at one point. As Fox writes, “I sensed that if she could have hidden the act, she would have killed me.”
At age five, Paula goes to Hollywood to live with her parents. Within days she’s back in the hands of rescuers, the “fire brigade that passed me along from person to person until I was safe,” from California’s Central Valley to Jacksonville to a plantation in Cuba where her maternal grandmother is the servant of a rich old cousin, and back to that smelly house in Queens, where her parents drop in, “handsome as movie stars,” and whisk her to strange parties in city apartments. Eventually they divorce and Paula goes to live with her father and his new wife in New Hampshire. She’s kicked out of school because of her father’s alcoholism, goes to art school in New York, finishing school in Montreal, then, through a “miracle” and more of her father’s lies, Juilliard. “My life was incoherent to me,” Fox writes. “I felt it quivering, spitting out broken teeth.”
For no apparent reason, she’s sent back to California in the care of a middle-aged woman friend of her father’s, an alcoholic reduced to playing the Ouija board “to encourage in her a sense that she had a fate.” Paula marries a sailor in the merchant marine who soon ships out for Murmansk. There are jobs as a wardrobe girl on movies, magician’s assistant, dance instructor, worker in a Mexican ceramic factory, salesgirl in a seedy clothing shop; bull sessions with her husband’s Communist friends and fleeting encounters, no big deal, with Harpo Marx, Orson Welles, John Barrymore. She dances for an hour with John Wayne and crashes a party at the Garden of Allah, where Stella Adler gives her a suit (one of the many castoffs that give the memoir its title and central conceit). And even on the last page there is no hint, except in the dazzling clarity of the telling, of what transformed this confused young woman with a walk-on part in her own life into a belatedly recognized master of postwar American fiction.
Fox’s six novels, rescued from out-of-print oblivion in recent years through the enthusiasm of such younger writers as Jonathan Franzen, Andrea Barrett, and Jonathan Lethem, often center on the theme of lost children and the mostly disastrous salvage operations of adults with none of their own. Her three short novels of the late Sixties and early Seventies—Poor George, Desperate Characters, and The Widow’s Children—are potent distillations of the period, though the characters seem almost mummified in the faded trappings of an older, dying order.* Like that mysterious trunk from Worth, Fox’s settings are often too luxurious, too old-fashioned, only with some unnerving detail poking through that is very much of its age, like a button reading “Fuck Housework” worn by a passer-by on a fur coat over evening clothes in The Widow’s Children.
Fox’s milieu is the bourgeois intellectual domestic world, where the living room is seen as the besieged outpost of a corrupt and exhausted civilization, whether it’s cluttered with the Aztec fetishes, Japanese baskets, and other bric-a-brac of a schoolteacher clinging to shabby respectability, or the suffocating upholstered tastefulness of hip shrinks and bitter Trotskyite professors and disillusioned publishers of literary gardening books. Her tightly orchestrated scenes of bitterly funny, epigrammatic dialogue unfold mostly in meticulously furnished interiors, and usually tend toward some serious broken crockery. If there’s a teapot on the table, chances are it’s going to be smashed by the last chapter.
Poor George (1967), Fox’s first novel, is a story of marital implosion that takes place against a backdrop of chatter about disturbed children and juvenile delinquents. George Mecklin is a bored English teacher at a private high school in New York City. He has come to hate his grade-grubbing students, with their sense of entitlement and regurgitated essays written in “fat, self-admiring letters.” He lives with his resentful librarian wife, Emma, in a Hudson Valley enclave where there are still deer and foxes in the woods, and also low talk around town about more dangerous human predators. George and Emma have some romantic dinners that often shade into argument and cold, panicked sex, but mostly they’re waiting to stop talking about things so they can stop thinking about them too. George reads a lot, “but usually when Emma was in the room. If she left, his attention wavered.” He’s a hollow man, bored and featureless—“like a pumpkin waiting to have a face carved on it,” says his sister, or a “piece of office furniture.” Fox writes brilliant put-downs, but she doesn’t give George any good lines.
Fox's two longer novels, The Western Coast (1972) and A Servant's Tale (1984), have also been brought back into print by Norton, and her most recent one, The God of Nightmares (1990), will be reissued by Norton in June. These novels take in a wider sweep of time and place, from the fictional Caribbean island of San Pedro in the revolutionary 1930s to Depression-era Hollywood to bohemian New Orleans on the eve of World War II, and focus on a young woman's sentimental and political education, with a special emphasis on growing awareness of the injustices visited on sexual and racial minorities. Fox has also written some two dozen books for young readers, including The Slave Dancer (1973), about a boy kidnapped in New Orleans and pressed into service as a slave ship entertainer, which won the prestigious Newberry Medal in 1974. ↩
Fox’s two longer novels, The Western Coast (1972) and A Servant’s Tale (1984), have also been brought back into print by Norton, and her most recent one, The God of Nightmares (1990), will be reissued by Norton in June. These novels take in a wider sweep of time and place, from the fictional Caribbean island of San Pedro in the revolutionary 1930s to Depression-era Hollywood to bohemian New Orleans on the eve of World War II, and focus on a young woman’s sentimental and political education, with a special emphasis on growing awareness of the injustices visited on sexual and racial minorities. Fox has also written some two dozen books for young readers, including The Slave Dancer (1973), about a boy kidnapped in New Orleans and pressed into service as a slave ship entertainer, which won the prestigious Newberry Medal in 1974. ↩