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Desperate Characters

3.78  ·  Rating details ·  2,855 Ratings  ·  385 Reviews
Otto and Sophie Bentwood live in a changing neighborhood in Brooklyn. Their stainless-steel kitchen is newly installed, and their Mercedes is parked curbside. After Sophie is bitten on the hand while trying to feed a stray, perhaps rabies-infected cat, a series of small and ominous disasters begin to plague the Bentwoods' lives, revealing the fault lines and fractures in a ...more
ebook, 156 pages
Published May 17th 1999 by W. W. Norton Company (first published 1970)
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Rating details
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Apr 14, 2007 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 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
Aug 07, 2015 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
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
Jan 26, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
How was I bamboozled in this WASPy angst reminiscent of John Cheever or somebody. I picked up this book after a recent article listed the best taut and rather obscure books that you can read in a single sitting. Well, yeh, you can read it in a single sitting so that part is true.

I should've known to back away when it received the endorsement of Jonathan Franzen who called it the greatest realist novel of the postwar era. ughh!

Book written in 1970 with the setting taking place somewhere around th
ReemK10 (Paper Pills)
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.

Oct 31, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Mar 25, 2015 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.
Aug 12, 2012 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
Beth Bonini
The title of this book comes from Thoreau's famous dictum that the 'mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation', and it is referenced in a fractious exchange between married couple Otto and Sophie and Otto's absent law partner, Charlie - who is the silent, but still important, voice in the conversation.

Otto and Sophie have all of the trappings of middle-class success: the books, the car, the vacation home, the boat, the beautifully set dinner table. But still, the ugliness of life insists on i
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
Dec 10, 2007 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
May 31, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
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
May 14, 2014 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
Jan 31, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 04, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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
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.

John Pappas
Feb 17, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Mar 26, 2015 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
Kristina Chalmain
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 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.
An almost textbook example of a writer's writer, Paula Fox has been mostly forgotten by the ordinary readers of the world, but her memory has been kept on by the firm of J. Franzen & Co., Social Realists. And like Franzen, she uses all of these improbable events to examine the vertigo of her time period, which in this case revolves around the bite of a stray cat. Each description fucking bleeds. Like in the best short stories of John Cheever, you're standing at a distance from the characters ...more
Robert Wechsler
Mar 19, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: american-lit
I’d been meaning to read this novel for a long time, but it took Fox's recent death for me to follow through on my intention. I’m glad I did. It’s a very dark novel that is also playful. The prose is excellent, particularly in its changing rhythms. The imagery and themes are tight, as Jonathan Franzen explains in his foreword to the current edition.

The novel paints a picture that, in some ways, is frighteningly contemporary, complete with the effects of Brooklyn gentrification and a sense of dre
Aug 10, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A book I would never have heard of had it not been for the enthusiastic reviews of other bloggers.
It is a beautifully written novel it explores with some dark humour, and compelling drama the changing society of the 1960s.
Sophie and Otto Bentwood are a privileged couple living in a beautifully elegant apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Their lives are ordered and filled with lovely things, they drive a Mercedes, have a holiday home on Long Island, they have successfully insulated themselves from a
Dolly Anderson
Mar 26, 2015 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: no one
Recommended to Dolly by: a cat enthusiast
After reading this novel, I actually thought "What a waste of my time! What the heck was this story even about?' So let's start at the beginning. I read this because someone recommended this as an A++ story featuring a cat. [I have been missing my own dear feline companion(Max) of 22 years, who died this past year. My personal goal was to include reading a number of books this year featuring cats as my own tribute to remembering him.]

The premise of the story is Sophie is bitten by a stray cat wh
Chris Blocker
Jan 29, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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Paula Fox was 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 wi
More about Paula Fox...
“‎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
More quotes…