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