Desperate Characters

by Paula Fox
Norton, 156 pp., $12.00 (paper)

Paula Fox
Paula Fox; drawing by David Levine

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…

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