For those of you reading along in the 15 project, my 10th book (yay, 2/3 done!) was Desperate Characters by Paula Fox, which has been on my shelf since March of 2002, according to the receipt inside it. I think I’d just read Fox’s Slave Dancer, winner of the 1974 Newbery Medal, and been blown away by its story and the skill of the writing, and wanted to check out her writing for adults; Desperate Characters had just come back into print.
Otto and Sophie Bentwood are a 40ish childless couple living in Brooklyn in the late 60’s. Their neighborhood is covered in trash, and their backyard overlooks the slums. They don’t like or understand the children of their friends. On a Friday night, before a party, Sophie tried to feed a stray cat, and is bitten for her trouble. The bite and the pain of it carry through the weekend, and this close-up snapshot of a particular place and time.
Fox’s prose is amazingly crafted, and conveys much with few words.
When Otto came home, he discovered Sophie off in a corner of the living room, sitting in a formal chair no one ever sat in, stippled with light and shadow. Her silence and the dining room table set for dinner, which he glimpsed through the living room doors, looked like a set piece arranged for some purpose that had subsequently been forgotten. He had the impression she was weeping without sound, and that perhaps the elements of this forlorn scene had been contrived for his benefit, a domstic lesson that was to elicit from him an apology. (93)
This is a beautifully written book, full of metaphor and portents, that delves deep into its characters. Otto and Sophie are among the desperate characters of the title, yet they’re complicated–not entirely pathetic, yet not entirely likable, either. It’s not a cheerful read, but neither is it a dire one. It is, though, quite rewarding.