Acclaimed novelist Fox (Desperate Characters, reprinted 1999, etc.) describes with astonishing detachment a peripatetic childhood buffeted by the whims of her neurotic parents.
Fox’s alcoholic father, Paul, left her in a Manhattan foundling home days after her birth in 1923 at the insistence of her 19-year-old mother, Elsie, “panic-stricken and ungovernable in her haste to have done with me.” Taken in by a kindly Congregational minister, who raised her in the small town of Balmville, New York, Paula was subjected to occasional alarming excursions with her parents. In a New York hotel, when the little girl observed there was no milk with her dinner, Paul took the tray and dropped it out a window. When she was six, they removed her from the minister’s nurturance; Fox describes this parting as “an amputation.” By the time she was 18, she’d lived in Hollywood, in Kew Gardens, Long Island, with her Spanish grandmother (and several uncles as bizarre as their sister, Elsie), in Cuba, Florida, New Hampshire, and at a boarding school in Montreal. Most of these moves were abruptly decreed by Elsie or Paul (they divorced when Paula was 12) for motives Fox does not attempt to analyze. She delineates her own emotions with delicate restraint, and her prose is as fine as in her fiction. (On a California earthquake: “For moments, the world’s heart had stopped.”) This would be an unbearably sad story if not for paragraphs subtly interspersed throughout that show young Paula discovering the pleasure of words and the power of literature, which “calmed my turbulence, eased my restlessness and shame.” When she was 21, Fox too had an unwanted baby, but the book’s final pages show her reunited with the daughter she gave up for adoption. Without a hint of facile optimism, Fox suggests you can not only survive a traumatic past but learn from it.
Austere yet painfully moving: a refreshing contrast to the spate of whiny memoirs currently crowding bookstore shelves.