Desperate Characters
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Desperate Characters

3.87 of 5 stars 3.87  ·  rating details  ·  1,386 ratings  ·  208 reviews
A Great American Novel -- from the author of Borrowed Finery. 'A masterpiece.' Observer 'Inarguably great. Desperate Characters soars above every other work of American realist fiction since the Second World War.' JONATHAN FRANZEN Otto and Sophie Bentwood live childless in a renovated Brooklyn brownstone. The complete works of Goethe line their bookshelf, their stainless s...more
Paperback, 176 pages
Published 2003 by Flamingo (first published 1970)
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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...more
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
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...more
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...more
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
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.

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...more
"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...more
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.
John Pappas
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
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...more
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
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
Chris Blocker
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...more
Anne Sanow
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...more
Linda Mason Hunter
Absolutely love this book. It's a model for creating well-rounded psychological characters.
I recently finished this short novel. Some of Fox's narrative was truly captivating, such as her portrait of a morose city hospital emergency room, and her touching mention of the main character's memory of being a child and having vague, floating, yet magical hopes about being a grown-up. Still, for all the details, I felt strangely detached and disconnected from the main characters: try as I might, I could not find their hearts and souls. I am interested to try something else by Fox, given her...more
'I'd be better off if I were more like my father. He based his life on the assumption that nothing would come of anything. And hope broke in upon him the way disappointment breaks in on other people's lives. He hated hope. It unmanned him. Assume the worst, my son, and you'll never be disappointed....I was in the hospital room when he died. He couldn't speak or move, and one side of his face was paralyzed. But he broke through that coma just long enough to give me a lopsided smile. I knew what h...more
A quietly pitch-perfect and devastating novel. I actually read it twice because I was hoping to deconstruct how Fox's writing had managed to get so under my skin. My only theory is that her character sketches are so precise and honest, that no additional writerly exposition is necessary to drive home the book's themes. Every word in Desperate Characters feels necessary and true, and it continues to resonate, if not haunt me.
I've read it three times now, and taught it, and this superb book continues to impress. The critic Irving Howe ranked it up there with Billy Budd and The Great Gatsby. That's a high bar, but I think Fox has earned it. Among "short novels," I'd rank it with Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow.

I'm sure I'll continue to reread this book like I would a favorite poem or short story.
Beautiful in it's subtlety. Despite the fact that this novel was written in 1970, it is almost prophetic in what was to come for yuppie Brooklyn. Sophie is a drift, listless searcher who has given up working as a French translator and can't seem to find much use in doing much else. After she is bitten by a cat that she feeds out of kindness, she is terrified, and then almost hopefully hypnotized by the possibility that she has been infected with rabies. It's a tale about a splintering marriage t...more
A small, amazing novel about a married couple living in a slowly gentrifying Brooklyn circa 1970, as they deal with a number of small (yet crucial) crises over the span of just a few days.

Like another favorite small novel of mine -- Ian McEwan's "On Chesil Beach" -- this is a tightly constructed, careful study which is impossibly rich and perfectly textured. The Bentwoods' marriage and their unsettling experiences over a few days hits on pretty much everything: race, class, gender, society, mone...more
James Tierney
A dyspeptic, Franzenesque set of frazzled nerves of a novel but with a ixnay on J-Fra's loquaciousness. Highly recommended....more
“He did little bugs and plants; the natural world was a thousand times more bizarre and interesting than human society. With a charming smile, he described the manner in which a certain larva managed to insinuate itself into the brain of a songbird in order to complete its metamorphosis” (54).
“Later, during a time when there was no room in her thoughts for anything but remorseless obsessive recollection…” (58). *I hate that state of mind.
“Sophie was plagued by a vision of herself sliding effortl...more
Elizabeth Quinn
Paula Fox's Desperate Characters is another novel rescued from obscurity by a popular contemporary author, Jonathan Franzen, who mentioned it in a magazine piece and contributed an introduction to this 1999 reissue. The novel tells the story of a trying weekend for Sophie and Otto Bentwood, pioneer gentrifiers of a Brooklyn slum in the 1960s. The action begins at dinner on Friday evening and ends just before noon on the following Monday. In restoring their home, the Bentwoods have constructed a...more
Tatyana Kagamas
More people should read this book. I'm actually kind of perplexed that I'd never heard anything about Paula Fox until my friend mentioned this novel to me because of certain parallels between mine and the main character's lives (cats, insanity).

The anxious story of an upper-middle class white woman living in Brooklyn during the early pioneering days of outer borough gentrification. Kind of a prequel to LJ Davis's A Meaningful Life, Desperate Characters is bizarre and unsettling, exposing the inn...more
Jaclyn Michelle

"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 sinc...more
Terrific writing -- frequently stunning. I was especially taken by the lengthy description of a hospital waiting room, which, in part, read:

It was a dead hole, smelling of synthetic leather and disinfectant, both of which odors seemed to emanate from the torn scratched material of the seats that lined three walls. It smelled of the tobacco ashes which had flooded the two standing metal ashtrays. On the chromium lip of one, a cigar butt gleamed wetly like a chewed piece of beef. There was the sme
DESPERATE CHARACTERS. (1970). Paula Fox. *****.
This is a fine novel whose characters are indeed desperate, but not sure what the main roots of their desperation are. It all starts off when Sophie has her hand bitten by a neighborhood cat when she was trying to give him some milk. The immediate thought of rabies jumped into her mind. Her husband, Otto, expressed some concern when she told him of it, but immediately recommended that she go and get a tetanus shot. Sophie agrees that that would be...more
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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
More about Paula Fox...
The Slave Dancer One-Eyed Cat Borrowed Finery: A Memoir Monkey Island The Widow's Children

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“‎How pleasant to read uncompromised by purpose.” 5 likes
“He smiled and bent forward, a hand on each knee, his truculence gleaming through his smile like a stone under water.” 3 likes
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