Mar 152013

Desperate Characters, by Paula Fox

Two Stars

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.

Mar 092013

Death Comes to Pemberley, by P. D. James

Two Stars

P. D. James channeling Jane Austen? Could the creator of the dour Scotland Yard detective Adam Dalgliesh capture the vibrant Lizzie Bennett’s shimmering wit? To find out the answers to those questions was the only reason I overcame my disinclination for Austen spinoffs and bought this novel, which was published in P. D. James’ 91st year. Alas, the answer to both is no: James does not succeed in channeling Austen or capturing any part of her most beloved character, Elizabeth Bennett of Pride of And Prejudice. As to why an iconic mystery writer who created a beloved character of her own and is a bestselling author on every continent would run the risk of her (potentially) final novel being this very bad book, the answer seems obvious to me: She’s a huge Austen fan. And in honor of that fact, let me point out the single charm I found in her take on Pemberley six years after Lizzie’s marriage to Darcy: bulletins for Austenland on the doings of other characters. For example, James brings us up to date on Anne Eliot, the heroine of Persuasion, and Emma Woodhouse and other characters from Emma play minor roles in her novel. Imagining ties, however tenuous, between these Austen characters was a real delight. But that was the only one to be had in her story because James consistently violates the basic tenet of good fiction: show, don’t tell. Just about the entire book is told — by an omnisicent narrator filling in backstory, by more backstory mused over in the thoughts of key characters, by characters telling what happened to them to other characters — with almost every important scene occurring off the stage. The only sustained passage of an actual scene unfolded on the page for the viewer to see in real time turns out to be telling as well since it consists mostly of trial witnesses telling a courtroom what they saw. In addition, James fails to capture Lizzie Bennett because this is Darcy’s book, not Elizabeth’s, and the fundamental attribute of James’ Darcy — and her Elizabeth to judge by the little we get to see of her — is correctness: an overarching obsession with appearing correct and doing the correct thing — as a master, as a husband, as a brother, etc. Correctness is an admirable attribute but boring in the extreme, especially when combined with humorlessness. Austen’s Darcy was a bit of a stiff cipher who we felt would be redeemed by Lizzie’s wit, love of the human comedy, and passion for her man. James’ Darcy has stiffened and so has his wife into yet another benevolent and boring lady of the manor.