Desperate Characters, by Paula Fox
Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters is another novel rescued from obscurity by a popular contemporary author, Jonathan Franzen, who mentioned it in a magazine piece and contributed an introduction to this 1999 reissue. The novel tells the story of a trying weekend for Sophie and Otto Bentwood, pioneer gentrifiers of a Brooklyn slum in the 1960s. The action begins at dinner on Friday evening and ends just before noon on the following Monday. In restoring their home, the Bentwoods have constructed a plush cocoon in the midst of squalor that they find distasteful, and on this weekend Otto especially is irked by the trash in the streets, a drunk vomiting on the sidewalk, and the stray cats haunting their back yard. Adding to Otto’s unhappiness is the fact that his longtime law partner and one-time friend left their shared office for the last time on Friday to embark on a new solo practice, taking some of Otto’s clients with him. Otto finds himself out of step with the times as many of his middle-aged contemporaries embrace the social values of 1960s. Fox tells her story from the point of view of Sophie, a full-time homemaker who once worked in publishing and still occasionally translates a French book, but for the most part is a passive onlooker who muses regretfully about an affair that ended when her lover returned to his wife. The plot hinges on a stray cat’s biting of Sophie’s hand when she feeds it on her back doorstep and if she’ll have to endure a tedious and gruesome treatment if the animal is found to be rabid. That cat bite is the first and most serious of a series of small assaults Sophie and Otto witness or endure every time they leave their safe cocoon. This is slight novel, just 156 pages, and those who read for character are more likely to enjoy it than those who prefer plot-driven fiction. Although Fox is certainly an excellent writer, I found both Sophie and Otto unappealing and, therefore, I didn’t really enjoy this novel.