A SERVANT'S TALE by Paula Fox
Kirkus Star

A SERVANT'S TALE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

From the author of the splendid The Widow's Children (1976): a very gradually-building, apparently plain, yet enormously distinguished novel, a piece of portraiture that--without overt drama or stylistic self-display--brings an invisible life forward into complete visibility, etched in dignity. Luisa Sanchez is born on the Caribbean island of San Pedro, the bastard daughter of the son of the town's richest woman and one of that woman's housemaids. The marriage (tardy but eventual) is an unhappy one--there's too much disgrace and discrepancy of class to reconcile; and before the Depression, the family leaves the island for New York. There, life is little better: small, shared apartments; little work, less money. So, to help out, teenaged Luisa takes on work as a domestic, to the horror of her mother. Still, Luisa is able to maintain the margin of a private life: she has a good friend in Ellen, a black girl from high school; in time, through Ellen's political circle, she meets Tom--lover, then husband. But when Tom proves to be a faithless liar, Luisa--now with a son, Charlie--must divorce him and return to doing maid's work. And it's at this moment in the life that Fox's novel becomes most stunning: Luisa's ownership of her life having proven so fragile, she becomes an adjunct to the lives of others. . . without condescension or scorn--and also without any identification or confusion of interests. True, she's genuinely fond of some of her employers: kind homosexual antiques dealer Mr. Clare; mentally delicate animal--lover Mrs. Justen; and--most vividly--funny, attractive, completely disorganized divorcÉe Mrs. Burgess, out of whose mouth every word is simultaneously endearing and appalling, a wonderful character who's wholly unpredictable. Yet Luisa and growing Charlie maintain an innate apartness from these people. So, when Mrs. Burgess, bored and lonely, seduces the now-teenaged Charlie, Luisa's particular life--involved but alien, providing order that is instantly disposable and infinitely repeatable--crumbles: ""Mrs. Burgess made senseless profit, brief distractions for herself, out of the trust of people whose lives touched upon hers. In her gluttonous violence of soul, how would she have been able to distinguish the trust I had given her from the opportunity it provided?"" Luisa's tone throughout, shocked and hurt and still calm beneath, acknowledges the discomforting notion that lives are lived to be given to other lives--that we may all be servants; she is the epitome of someone of great soul who nonetheless barely exists in a peopled world. And while the paradoxes of humility and exploitation aren't regularly explored by American novelists (unless cynically or in service of a political position), Fox's book is the rare exception--akin to the novels of Madine Gordimer and Georges Bernanos, the films of Robert Bresson. An important, very impressive novel.

Pub Date: Sept. 15th, 1984
ISBN: 0393322858
Publisher: North Point