It is not easy to write a book about marriage. It takes a lot. Sometimes I also think you have to go to that place to experience it and put it on paper. And then to talk about a failing marriage is something else. The emotions that seethe under and to bring them to fore, is not an easy feat. “Desperate Characters” by Paula Fox is one of those few books that manage to do it. It manages to evoke almost every emotion in the characters and the reader and but obviously, the sense of void, remains, as it always does, at the end of a good novel.
I got to know of “Desperate Characters” when I chanced across Jonathan Franzen’s favourite books and this one was somewhere on the top of the list, after Christina Stead I think. The book starts off with an accident and ends almost in the same manner. A couple – who seem happy on the surface – Otto and Sophie Bentwood, living in Brooklyn – the epitome of suburban bliss so to speak. The complete works of Goethe line their bookshelf, they own a Mercedes, and of course all materialistic gadgets of the time in which the story is set – 1969. Sophie is then bitten by a neighbourhood stray cat and from there on their lives change. The marriage crumbles. The decay is visible and for all to see.
America is changing, rapidly at that and in the book; their marriage to a large extent cannot handle the changes. The bite almost becomes metaphorical of their marriage – not healing, dark and almost septic. Fox’s characters are reckless. I think she conjures them that way. They cannot be anything or anyone else. The writing then is nuanced. So much so that you find yourself going over sentences, again and again, to soak yourself in the language and the emotions they convey.
What is most surprising is that the book released in 1970 and not many people know of it. I hope this will change, because I wish more people would read Paula Fox. She is one of the most underrated authors and deserves a chance for sure. Go and buy this one. Read it.
Here is a flavour of her writing:
Thus, they stand facing each other “rigidly, each half-consciously amassing evidence against the other, charges that would counterbalance the exasperation that neither could fathom.”
“Life is desperate.”
“You don’t know what’s going on,” he said at last. “You are out of the world, tangled in personal life…People like you …stubborn and stupid and drearily enslaved by introspection while the foundation of their privilege is being blasted out from under them.” He looked calm. He had gotten even.’