Reading list: Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

How to Start: The cover of Desperate Characters, the edition with the introduction by Jonathan Franzen where he praises the story and its author lavishly, somehow lead me to believe that Paula Fox was a young woman. She’s not though. She died in 2017 at the age of 93. This is her most well-known book. 

Favourite quotes: “Sophie’s first exhilaration was gone. She was worried. Her whole left arm ached. Her excitement at the contrast between her formerly placid partner’s-wife friendship with Charlie – no questions, no answers – and their present circumstances, the thought of Otto asleep and unaware, which had given impetus to her flight from the house, had dropped away. Now it was like the labored conversation among guests at a late hour after there is nothing more to say, nothing but ashes in the fireplace, dishes in the sink, a chill in the room, a return to ordinary estrangement.” (p 34)

“Her body was not her own any more, but had taken off in some direction of its own. In this last year she had discovered that its discomforts, once interpreted, always meant the curtailment, or end, of some pleasure. She could not eat and drink the way she once had. Inexorably, she was being invaded by elements that were both gross and risible. She had only recently realized that one was old for a long time.” (p 48)

“She glanced at Tim’s impassive face. Perhaps he didn’t even know he had lied; perhaps he only recognized a lie when it was refuted.” (p 137)

“As often as not, she slept late on Monday, but that tardiness continued to trouble her just as it had done in her childhood. She woke now, as she had done then, to a faint malaise, a sense of a foothold gained just in time. Monday had always been a terrible trouble – once she had tried to stay awake all Sunday night to forestall her mother’s grim and unforgiving presence in her doorway – but she had fallen asleep just before dawn, to be awakened two hours later by her mother clapping her hands relentlessly over the bed, her face shining from her morning scrub, dressed in a starched house dress, saying over and over, “Early risers are the winners.” It had been thirty years since Sophie had been roused by that derisive applause; she had not yet discovered the nature of the prize her mother’s words had once led her to believe existed. Perhaps winning had simply meant the tyranny of waking others.” (p 147)

“She was nearly seventy, pickled in sunshine by now, living that California life, she thought. It had been months since she’d written, but it was so hard to write. Confronted with a sheet of writing paper, she could only fill it with banalities. Writing to her mother made her feel that she, Sophie, had no life at all. But her mother was an old woman. Surely she ought to honor her age, if nothing else.” (p 43)

Tangential: Desperate Characters was made into a movie in 1971. I’m ready to argue that the book is probably better…