A Woman Who Can’t Be Categorized

Paula Fox can’t be categorized–at least, not by me. She’s won awards for her children’s books like One-Eyed Cat and The Slave Dancer. 

I’ve taught both these books. One-Eyed Cat is a particularly wonderful book which examines the complexity of emotions like remorse and guilt.

But she’s not “just” a YA or children’s author. She’s been called the greatest writer of novels for adults by Jonathan Franzen (read here), but I can’t vouch for those as I haven’t (yet) read them.Desperate Characters

She’s a memoirist, but I’m not sure Borrowed Finery (one of her two memoirs) is a memoir.

Borrowed Finery


I just finished reading the book last night. What a life! I was enthralled, following the details of Fox’s life, as she was moved about from person to person, city to city, even living in Cuba for a year and a half. Fox is 91 years old, and the book takes place up to the point that she is 21 years old, except for a short section at the end, so the book is not an exhaustive autobiography–probably why it’s called a memoir. Nevertheless, it didn’t feel like a memoir. There wasn’t a strong MDQ driving the book. Occasionally,  it is even anecdotal. That said, I was fascinated, both by the events and by her exquisite sentences.

Her mother abandoned her at birth; she was a cruel woman who seemed to blame infant (and child) daughter for the loss of her “spring.”  Her father and mother were married, and the father complied with the mother’s wishes. He also seemed to be quite cruel and a severe alcoholic, although as a child Fox was obsessed with him. One of the first times Fox was with her parents, they asked her to order from room service. When the meal came, she realized she had forgotten to order milk and mentioned it. Her father took the tray of food and threw it out the window.

Many people are familiar with some basics of Fox’s life. For instance, when she was 21 she gave birth to a baby girl. Linda was the result of a one-night stand, although Fox had already been married to someone else. Fox despaired of being able to take care of her daughter and gave her up for adoption–only to almost immediately change her mind. She was told it was too late to change her mind (it wasn’t). Eventually, Fox was reunited with adult Linda and they have a good relationship. Linda is the mother of three daughters. Two of the granddaughters Fox has a great relationship with. The other granddaughter through Linda is Courtney Love, who Paula does not think is a good person. It does make me wonder if Love inherited a gene passed on to Linda from Fox from her own horrible mother.

Although I know that an unknown writer can’t publish a memoir that relies on chronology and anecdote in the way that Fox’s can, I did learn many things from her book. Just soaking up her elegant phrasing makes me aspire to write better. Then I also saw that she easily moved forward in time when she wanted to “tie up” an anecdote. With her graceful style, I really had to pay attention to even notice such a move.

One of the hallmarks of memoir is the double eye–the protagonist at the moment the events occur and the older, wiser protagonist reflecting upon those events. In that respect, Fox’s book is a stunning memoir. In one scene, her father spanks her for coming into her parents’ bedroom. In reality, he’s upset that she saw him with another woman in the bed. The African-American maid speaks up to defend Fox.

Years later, when I thought about her–and I thought about her often–about how much she had had to overcome in the way of an enforced and habitual discretion, how a sense of justice in her had outweighed the risk–I realized how brave she had been.

If you prefer books with a strong and fast-paced through-line you might find this book too lyrical. But if you’re willing to sit down and let a writer with a perfect sense of timing guide you, you will appreciate the story of Fox’s early life.


Filed under Book Review, Books, Creative Nonfiction, Interview, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Vintage American culture, Writing

26 responses to “A Woman Who Can’t Be Categorized

  1. Thank you for the intriguing post! Her books sound like worthy reads.

  2. She has lived quite the life, Luanne. If I wrote a memoir up until the time I turned 21 years old, it would be a snoozefest. 🙂

  3. I always like to read memoirs!!!! Thanks for the interesting post, Luanne! Both books sound good.

    • Thanks, Hollis! She’s a wonderful writer who has never gotten the big name she ought to have. By the way, where have you been lately?

      • We are in the process of getting our daughter off to college. In fact this is the weekend!!!!

        Shopping, shopping, shopping and much emotion on both sides. Even a trial run to her school just to make her feel comfortable. After Sunday I will be an empty nester! Yikes!!!!!

        But for now I am listening to country music, she is at the wheel and we are off!!!!! Thank you for asking. See you next week!!

        • Woohoo! Have fun! We got ourselves a new kitty cat when our youngest went off to college ;). Every time you visit her it will be an adventure.

  4. Very interesting, Luanne! You know I am a fan of nonfiction – particularly memoir, and this one seems to fit the bill for a good read! I wasn’t familiar with her work, but I find I like “older” writers, and you were right on target about the memoir form. A good one has two voices – the one acting and the other reflecting on the action. Thanks so much for the review!

    • Sheila, I think you will really enjoy it. Her writing style (and the quality of it) are inspirational, her story is fascinating, and her heart is strong.

  5. She sounds like a very interesting person. Like Jill, my experiences up to age 21 would take about 3 pages and that would be for the more “interesting” ones.

    • No no no. I refuse to accept that, Kate. I’m sure that a) you had interesting things happen to you and interesting people around you, and 2) your writing would make them even more interesting. 🙂

  6. I think that the memoirs you have featured cannot be categorized in one style, Luanne! You have such a diversity from one to the next! I like how you tell us that you are familiar with this author as a YA author, but she has these other adult books to check out. I would like the lyrical sentences, I don’t need an action driven plot. I enjoy reading a ‘good’ writer. I also enjoy youth oriented books, it is such a good way to prepare me, just in case I ever get back to writing!
    I think the ‘double eye’ explanation was excellent, Luanne, along with the example given. I did not know this was what would be another way of demonstrating the older “me” looking at something that the younger “me” had a different perspective on. Great stuff here! Thanks! Hugs, Robin

    • Yes, the older “me” looking at the younger “me”! It’s amazing the range in that older me in memoirs. In some books he/she is barely there–you think you are reading the voice of the child. In other books the older “me” is mostly present. It really changes the effect of a book. You could write the same book both ways and they would be completely different!
      I have a 1/3 finished YA novel that I just love but I don’t work on it because there is just not enough time in the day. The reason I love it is that the voice of the girl is good. She’s got a good spirit. Someday . . . . I hope you get to it, too, Robin!

  7. What a life this woman had. And to think she wrote only about her first 21 years. I also found it interesting that her writing couldn’t be categorized. Why should our writing have to fall in one genre? Sure, I know it’s what publishers like. And what you read regarding self publishing, that it’s best to have two or three books in a series. But Fox, in defying these creatively restrictive boundaries, is a model for writers who don’t fit into categories. .

  8. Wow – sounds fascinating! Made me think of Joyce Carol Oates with all the different genres within which she can write.

  9. Never heard of Paula Fox until now! great post Luanne. Will add her books (yes, including books for the younger ones) to my ever growing list 😀

  10. Thanks for the recommendation to an author I’d never heard of Luanne. I’m curious to know why you say, “I’m not sure if Borrowed Finery is a memoir”? From your description it sounds like it is. What is it that makes you question that for this work? It does sound fascinating, particularly her good writing…I can always use that kind of inspiration!

    • Dawn, you know how when you are working on memoir you’re always being told to use all the writing tricks of fiction and to stick to a well-paced story that has suspense and lures the reader on? She doesn’t really do that? She paces the book more like an autobiography except that it’s more idiosyncratic than that. If she wants to put in a name-dropping anecdote, she does so whether it really furthers the plot or not. Yet for Paula Fox it works.

  11. Paula sounds like a wonderful writer, Luanne, I’ll definitely put her memoir on my ‘to read’ list.

  12. I will add yet another memoir to my list. Thanks, Luanne. How do you find these great reads?

    • From blog readers!! Just chatting and hearing what others are reading and one book leads to another, etc. Plus, I have a lot of varied interests, so that leads to still more books.

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