Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters came highly recommended by a friend whose aesthetic discernment is wholly unassailable. Other people of letters adore it, and, as a few reviewers note, they may enjoy being part of the small knot of worthies who treasure it more than they wish it to find a wider audience.
While some books read like a movie treatment because they are so poorly written and cluttered with cultural references that quickly date them, this one does because Fox describes the universe of her characters with detail that creates depth and timelessness. Even the parts that clearly place the book in a specific era- college kids grooving on an anti-war vibe while sticking it to The Man at The Man’s cocktail party – are ageless. The only true anachronism? Overflowing cigarettes in ashtrays at the hospital emergency room. I’m old enough to recall the horrid orange naugahyde stench of the communal ashtrays at Newark airport in the 70s, but not old enough to have any memory of people smoking inside hospitals!
The great unraveling of the characters’ lives is punctuated by a cat bite. I do not mean to belittle the book when I saw it would be an excellent teaching tool – the discussion of the many layers of symbolism caught up in the cat, its bite, and the ensuing descent into rabies-tinged madness could go on for a semester in the hands of the right professor.
I’m curious to read more by Paula Fox, who, in addition to her six adult novels, has published a slew of children’s fiction. The Slave Dancer won the Newbery Medal in 1974. I have no memory of encountering her as a child, but since I was a ravenous reader then, often steered toward Newbery winners, I’m curious to see if any of those books seem familiar.