Book 11 in my 15 project was by Paula Fox, like yesterday’s. Soon after her adult novels came back into print, Paula Fox wrote a memoir of her girlhood, Borrowed Finery. Having read some of her books, I wasn’t surprised to find her childhood wasn’t a happy one. Fox writes with a minimalist style that manages to convey the emotion of a child and the insight of an adult. Her writing is seemingly effortless, crafted in such a way that it’s easy to read, yet echoes long in the head and the heart.
Fox is abandoned by her parents as a baby:
By chance, by good fortune, I had landed in the hands of rescuers, a fire brigade that passed me along from person to person until I was safe…
For a very short period of my infancy, I had belonged in that house with that family…
I was five months old when the minister, hearing of my presence in Washingtonville and the singular way I had arrived, an event that had ruffled the nearly motionless, pondlike surface of village life–and knowing the uncertainty of my future, for the Boards, like most of their neighbors in those years, were poor–came by one Sunday to look at me. I was awake in the crib. I might have smiled up at him. In any event, I aroused his interest and compassion. He offered to take me
Her description of early childhood with the minister, whom she called Uncle Elwood, is idyllic, and marred only by the periodic correspondence of her parents. Later, out of guilt, duty, or a combination, Paula meets her father, then her mother. Over the next dozen years, she is bounced from them to relatives and friends and around again from NYC to Cuba to Florida to California. Throughout, her mother is a chilly presence, and her father is a maddening one, “part ally, part betrayer”.
Fox’s tale is a fascinating one, including frequent brushes with celebrity. Underneath, though, is the tragedy of a girl with rootless, careless parents who rarely gets a dress of her own, instead always surviving with hand-me-downs. Sparingly written and evocative, this book captivated me to the end, where she gives up a child for adoption*, and reminded me of Mary Carr’s excellent memoir The Liar’s Club.
(This overview of Fox’s work and life, includes the startling fact that the daughter Fox gave up for adoption went on to have a very famous daughter, Courtney Love.)