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Desperate Characters, an immaculate short novel about two married gentrifiers living in Brooklyn in the late ’60s, is Paula Fox’s most famous work, thanks in part to the advocacy of Jonathan Franzen. I reread it recently and was awed again at its quiet mastery and the feeling of nebulous dread it conjures. A New Yorker retrospective about the author informed me that The Widow’s Children, which came out in 1976, was in fact her masterpiece. And so I decided to check it out.
It’s certainly a masterclass in compression. Five people meet in a hotel room to fête Laura Clapper, né Maldonada, and her husband, Desmond, who has an alcohol addiction, before the two head on a tour of the African continent. Among those five is Clara Hansen, Laura’s daughter, who yearns so desperately for her mother’s approval, an approval Laura instinctively withholds. We learn early in the novel that Clara is the result of an unwanted pregnancy after Laura’s four abortions: “She had, she told herself, thieved her way into life.” There’s also Laura’s brother, Carlos, a congenial gay man and their mother Alma’s unabashed favorite, and Laura’s old friend Peter, an editor who is fed up with his tedious life. Over the course of a night, we watch tensions bubble over, during drinks, dinner, and finally, in a moving third act as the adult Maldonada children — there’s a brother named Eugenio as well — grapple with a death in the family.
What’s most remarkable about this novel is how many perspectives Fox inhabits seamlessly: We flit between all the characters; we see their desires and failed ambitions, how particularly painful the loss of wealth and status is for the Maldonadas (of Spanish heritage, they owned a plantation in Cuba that they lost during the Spanish American war), and all their hateful prejudices (Laura is antisemitic and racist, even though there are hints that the Maldonadas have Jewish ancestry).
In real life, Fox was also the result of an unplanned pregnancy, and she spent much of her childhood moving between different households. The question of how much biography influences fiction is a moot point; obviously, it does, but that doesn’t undermine the act of creation, and if this novel is the consequence of Fox working out her childhood trauma, then we’re all the better for it. An exquisite, heartbreaking achievement. —Tomi Obaro ●
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