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Desperate Characters

3.78  ·  Rating Details ·  2,511 Ratings  ·  342 Reviews
"A towering landmark of postwar Realism…A sustained work of prose so lucid and fine it seems less written than carved."
—David Foster Wallace

Otto and Sophie Bentwood live childless in a renovated Brooklyn brownstone. The complete works of Goethe line their bookshelf, their stainless-steel kitchen is newly installed, and their Mercedes is parked curbside. But after Sophie is
Paperback, 156 pages
Published May 17th 1999 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published 1970)
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May 16, 2016 karen rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: littry-fiction
oooh, i like this new cover. maybe i would have liked the book more if i'd read it with this cover.
Jacob Appel
Sep 11, 2016 Jacob Appel rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
If it were possible to give a book six stars, this would be the book.

Each time I reread Fox's masterpiece, which is receiving increasing yet still insufficient attention, I am struck by its remarkable balance of depth and breadth. If there are a handful of works of literature that are deserving of their own college course -- maybe Anna Karenina or Invisible Man or Ulysses -- then one could structure an entire college education around this compact and easily-accessible novel. On the surface, we a
Sep 18, 2015 Mary rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, 2015
I thought this would mostly be a dissection of marriage, but it turned out to be more of a tense observation on class distinction in 1960s NYC, and about how dangerous it is to have too much time on your hands to devote to introspection.

The central plot of a cat bite and the ensuing paranoia was highly symbolic. In fact, this short book is crammed with hidden meanings and I loved that. The snotty couple show up to their vacation house to find that someone has literally shit in it. A homeless ma
Jim Elkins
Sep 12, 2016 Jim Elkins added it
Shelves: american
The Problem with Being Too Virtuoso

It is a textbook for aspiring novelists, this book. Descriptions are so perfectly judged, incidents so astonishingly well balanced, episodes so impeccably resonant with one another, hints and allusions so delicately poised, psychological insights so bewilderingly sharp, that almost any novelist will seem dull-headed by comparison. I went from "Desperate Characters" to a novel by Cees Nooteboom, and I could hardly stomach it: Nooteboom, by comparison, seems hulk
Oct 31, 2011 Lobstergirl rated it liked it
Shelves: fiction
This is the type of small novel that critics and other novelists love. Jonathan Franzen writes in the introduction: "It seemed to me obviously superior to any novel by Fox's contemporaries John Updike, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow." Irving Howe ranks it up there with The Great Gatsby, Billy Budd, Miss Lonelyhearts, and Seize the Day.

For me that's a bit of a stretch. It reminded me of Patricia Highsmith's A Dog's Ransom, another novel where the urban neighborhood is a place of danger and hostilit
ReemK10 (Paper Pills)
Mar 20, 2015 ReemK10 (Paper Pills) rated it it was amazing
Simply put, this is a good piece of writing.

Bravo to Jonathan Franzen for rediscovering Paula Fox

"A perfect short novel. A few characters, a small stretch of time; setting and action confined- and yet, as in Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich, everthing crucial within our souls bared." blurb on the back

I enjoyed reading it.

Aug 12, 2012 David rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2012
Sometimes one's experience of reading a book can be marred by excessive hype, and I worried that this might not live up to the expectations created by Jonathan Franzen's idolatrous introduction. Though the book's portrait of the cracks in a foundering marriage between two Brooklyn hipsters (well, late 1960s hipsters) didn't resonate with me nearly quite as deeply as it obviously did with Franzen, it was pretty impressive. As the story opens, the privileged contentment of Otto and Sophie is broke ...more
Jul 24, 2016 Amanda rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
4.5 stars. This is a brilliant short novel that in less than 200 pages really gets in your head and under your skin. I think a second reading is probably required to fully appreciate all the subtext. Can't wait to discuss this one with my book group.
Oct 30, 2016 Abby rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2013, 2016
Critically acclaimed when it was published in 1970 and then largely forgotten, this small, polished gem of a novel has been rediscovered. It follows a well-to-do, childless couple living in a renovated brownstone in not-yet-gentrified Brooklyn, beset by the intrusions of the neighborhood and by their own unhappiness, over the course of a weekend. Acutely observed, economically written, brilliantly conveys the fissures in society and the characters' mounting desperation. Worthy of the renewed att ...more
Okay. Here is my unsophisticated reaction to this sophisticated novel.

First off, I most assuredly appreciated the writing. The sentences were a work of art, beautifully constructed with just the right amount of detail.

I recognize that this novel was meant to be Symbolic and to offer lots of Great Themes. And that I probably missed a lot of them. But here is my issue with a lot of these lofty novels: I just don't get the dialogue.

Are these people actually talking to each other? Would conversation
Feb 27, 2008 Libby rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"The short novel tends to have a history of containing quietism on the one hand and hysteria on the other."

You said it, Charlie Baxter!

Although we will be reading Paula Fox's The Widow's Daughter for Charlie's class, I was not alerted to either his interest in Fox or the short novel when I set out to read Desperate Characters. I kind of wish that I was reading it now though, given my current immersion in this question of narrative efficiency. Sigh.

This book is strange, short, quiet, and hysteric
Dec 06, 2013 Paul rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2010, 2013
5 Dec 2013:

Still got it. It's always risky re-reading a favorite book, since who knows if it'll stand up. This one definitely did. I love how much fury there is in this book, yet Fox manages to keep it from being overwrought. I mean, some of this is straight squalid, and yet you buy it. Also funny at times (rarely, but still). I still don't really understand the garbage theme, unless it's just to underline the point of things sort of falling apart and order disintegrating. Seems a little obviou
Jessica Gordon
Its true what they say that this book is just like The Great Gatsby--if Fitzgerald simply told us exactly what all the characters represented and showed us absolutely nothing, and if he had been an awful writer and named his book something ugly and overt like "Rich, Superficial People."

"Oh Gatsby, these pages in your books are uncut which shows that you never read the books and this shows that you are superficial. Oh Nick, said Gatsby, indeed its true--I just so badly want to be like all the pe
Aug 08, 2008 Daniel rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2008
Paula Fox's "Desperate Characters" is a nearly perfect novel, one that I can see myself revisiting more than once in the coming years, and one that deserves a place alongside Richard Yates's "Revolutionary Road" in the pantheon of fiction brilliantly depicting suburban American marital malaise. The superb writing, pitch-perfect dialogue and well-crafted narrative more than make up for some of the late-1960s-in-Brookyln elements that perhaps haven't aged so well. (A contemporary reader, however, ...more
I picked this novel up last weekend at the Harvard Book Store. I had never heard of it or of Paula Fox, but I thought the description on the book jacket looked interesting. A hit in 1970 and out of print for many years since, the book is described as “a perfect short novel…a few characters, a small stretch of time; setting and action tightly confined.” This description reminded me of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, which is also a short but powerful novel that takes place over just a few days.

Simon A. Smith
One of the most enjoyable reads I've ever experienced. Fox has a way of writing that sort of takes my breath away. Her observations, her descriptions, her attention to nuanced detail and sublime metaphor... It was really something else. I jotted the word "wow" in the column next to many paragraphs that seemed to reveal intimate things about human frailty, intuitions and intimations. She really understands what it's like to be conflicted in an extremely deep and personal way. I don't know if I've ...more
John Pappas
Feb 19, 2014 John Pappas rated it it was amazing
A nearly perfectly written depiction of a genteel upper-middle class couple whose whole manner of life seems to be under siege. Stationed in a renovated brownstone in Brooklyn, the Bentwoods rage against their impending cultural irrelevancy and the derelicts and hippies that they view as an increasingly common sign of the changing times of the late sixties and early seventies. Struggling under the oppressive weight of a loveless marriage, and husband Otto's collapsing work partnership, the Bentw ...more
Josh Friedlander
The best fiction succeeds in conveying the complexity and opaqueness of human relationships. This book contains difficulty in spades, trawling through a zombified marriage, a city in disrepair, all narrated by a troubled and distracted mind. The sympathetic background of crime, vandalism and poverty syncs perfectly with Fox's funereal tone. The story begins with a minor disaster - a stray cat bites the hero on her hand, an old law partnership breaks up - and from there everything gets worse, des ...more
Kristina Chalmain
Jan 31, 2015 Kristina Chalmain rated it it was ok
I can appreciate the skillful writing, yet I find the book tedious. Another story of the discrete charm of the bourgeoisie and of their petty concerns. I want to scream get a job! Get a life! Create some meaning in your lives, you boring twats!

Some examples: "How quickly the husk of adult life, its importance, was shattered by the thrust of what was, all at once, real and imperative an absurd." (p.112-113).

and: "For God's sake, be a little uncertain!" (p. 113).

The sense of increasing dread crea
Jul 16, 2009 Rose rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorite-books
I read a manual about writing once, and a paragraph from this book was included as an example of how to write well. Plus, Becca liked it, so it must be good. And it is good. It captures middle class anxiety and bourgeois marriage perfectly--in particular, through non-sequitur-laden dialogue that lets us track characters' neurotic preoccupations and shows how little attention they pay to what others are actually saying. I think it should be more famous than it is.
May 19, 2014 Marjorie rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I feel a a little stupid not liking this book. However if you needed an example of intellectual navel gazing this book would be a perfect example
Chris Blocker
Feb 05, 2011 Chris Blocker rated it really liked it
There are books out there which are phenomenal examples of writing. Some of these books see the light of day, garner some attention, are even made into a respectable film, but they're forgotten all too quickly. They float away from the literary canon and are out-of-print before anyone notices. Such a book was Paula Fox's poignant novel Desperate Characters.

Fortunately, in the case of this book, all was not lost. Jonathan Franzen pushed it as a classic, "soaring above every other work of American
Nov 06, 2010 Christopher rated it really liked it
An impeccably written, beautifully stark novel, that is one of the most savage books I've ever read. Interesting (without realizing the connection) that I had read some of Paula Fox's children books (The Slave Dancer, The One Eyed Cat) in earlier years, and the adults in this novel act like children. They are desperate characters, but also miserable and naive to the reality of the world. Sophie and Otto Bentwood are a WASP-ish 1970's New York couple, cringing and in a simultaneously sad and blea ...more
May 24, 2012 Alan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: novels, read-in-2010
don't know why but I can't go back to 'Day' yet, so picked this up - this had been lying on my bedside table for almost a year and only now I feel like reading it. Perhaps the same will happen to 'Day'...

review to follow... taken a bit of time to get back to this because I'm busy - getting the new book in order!

Some things in this book got my goat, the idle rich (or idle enough-to- get-by-on) aspect: she doesn't take a taxi not because she can't afford it, but because she can. Her curmudgeon hus
Mar 20, 2016 Reese rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Paula Fox's Desperate Characters is a puzzling book featuring puzzling characters, major and minor. When Fox tells us, "In anger, he had shouted at her and left the room. But the look she had seen on his face had not been one of anger but of bafflement; the look of one who can find no reason for his affliction"(88), she is at once offering and denying us information about the major characters, Otto and Sophie Bentwood. Reading this novel, I, too, wore a baffled look; and upon reaching the end of ...more
Anne Sanow
Feb 08, 2008 Anne Sanow rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
WOW! Okay, here's Goodreads in action: 3 friends highly recommended this, and after getting it from the library yesterday, I frittered away real-work time reading it. Ignored my boyfriend last night for awhile, just to keep going, and finished up today. Well. What a brilliant, brutal, wicked thing this is! I do love that, yes, this is a novel about a cat bite, of all things--the cat and all the obsessive action and thinking related to it are amazing. Really sharp and twisted, with some of the be ...more
Edwin Arnaudin
Only for Jonathan Franzen's undying love of Desperate Characters was I drawn to Fox's novella. It's at the core of his well-known Harper's article on the decline of the serious novel and he wrote the introduction for it's 1999 paperback reprint, in which he lauds its re-readability and the wealth of nuances he discovers each time through.

I don't know what he's talking about. Fox's writing is often beautiful, but her dialogue feel abrupt and false. I don't know anyone who talks in such stilted, u
Feb 20, 2016 Bianca rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Is it possible to award four 'painful' stars? Not because this book only 'just' gets its fours stars - no, quite the opposite: It deserves it fully. This novel is a pearl, should be read slowly, word by word, sentences should be read out loud so you can enjoy every sound, every single picture Paula Fox draws in your head. However, it's not relaxed or laid back reading you dive into with this book - that's where the pain comes from. The marriage you will witness in this book seems empty, life and ...more
Dec 03, 2016 Freesiab rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
While the the writing wasn't bad, it was just boring. I recognize that it was written in the 70s but it still seems hardly groundbreaking with the exception of a few interesting passages. Yes, it talked about class, race, infidelity etc but in such a distracted way that the story barely held together. Even the marital tension didn't feel tense. I felt like I was giving the book allowances to be scattered or dull because I'm not a scholar but then I realized I'm a pretty well read person. Had it ...more
Jul 03, 2016 Liam rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Hilarious lucid prose that played out as a seamless and engaging film in my already jetlagged brain. There is just enough detail at an almost second by second time scale for you to genuinely feel 'in the room with the characters'. I honestly don't think I've been able to sustain that level of closeness with any other story/plot ever, because interruptions in the form of 'later on/and then... etc.' clauses make me feel left out, reading a filtered report, not seeing the event.

In this way, small a
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Paula Fox is an American author of novels for adults and children and two memoirs. Her novel The Slave Dancer (1973) received the Newbery Medal in 1974; and in 1978, she was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Medal. More recently, A Portrait of Ivan won the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis in 2008.

A teenage marriage produced a daughter, Linda, in 1944. However, given the tumultuous relationship wit
More about Paula Fox...

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“‎How pleasant to read uncompromised by purpose.” 6 likes
“He smiled and bent forward, a hand on each knee, his truculence gleaming through his smile like a stone under water.” 5 likes
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