Author, Book review, Fiction, Flamingo, literary fiction, New York, Paula Fox, Publisher, Setting

‘The Widow’s Children’ by Paula Fox

 Fiction – paperback; Flamingo; 240 pages; 2003.

This is one of those rare books that is almost impossible to review without quoting the whole novel from cover to cover. Pretty much every clipped and stripped back sentence in Paula Fox‘s The Widow’s Children resonates with meaning and provides startling insights into the ways in which family members interact and play games with one another.

Originally published in 1976 and only recently back in print via Flamingo, The Widow’s Children is peppered with eccentric characters, many of them wholly detestable, seething with anger and unspoken hostility.

The lead character, the fierce and somewhat bitchy Laura Maldonada Clapper, is about to embark on an African vacation with her slightly browbeaten husband Desmond. On the eve of their departure they throw a small party in their New York hotel room for a select group of people: Laura’s unspecified male friend Peter, her gay brother Carlos and her daughter from a previous marriage, Clara. The party eventually moves onto a restaurant in Manhattan in which family members struggle to control their rage about things said or not said in the past.

The lynch-pin of the novel is the fact that Laura, one of those hard-nosed women of whom it is impossible to say no, is withholding information: earlier that day she was told that her mother, the matriarch of the family, had died. It is only when this information leaks out that the real family fireworks begin.

The Widow’s Children is a short, easy-to-read novel (I devoured it in one sitting) but its brevity should not be mistaken for lack of depth. This is a fiercely intelligent read featuring brilliantly realistic characters. The dialogue is sharp, snappy and often witty, and despite the sometimes sombre subject matter the pathos is tempered by glimmers of unexpected humour. This is definitely a worthy follow-up to her much acclaimed Desperate Characters.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Flamingo, literary fiction, Paula Fox, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Desperate Characters’ by Paula Fox


Fiction – paperback; Flamingo; 176  pages; 2003.

First published in 1970, Paula Fox‘s Desperate Characters has recently been “rediscovered” and much acclaimed by the literary elite (in the introduction to this edition, Jonathan Franzen says that when he first read the book in 1991 he “fell in love with it. It seemed to me obviously superior to any novel by Fox’s contemporaries John Updike, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow”).

A relatively short and easy-to-read novel, it is overwhelmingly articulate – on so many levels: in its succinct, snappy dialogue; in its dissection of a marriage under strain between a comfortably middle-aged middle-class childless couple; in its analysis of friendships, also under strain, by social mores and expectations; in its exploration of a woman’s role in society (should she work? should she have children?); and in its descriptions of the seedy underbelly of 1960s New York life, where drunks roam the Brooklyn streets and faceless people vandalise property.

On the face of it not much seems to happen in Desperate Characters. The main character, Sophie Bentwood, gets bitten by a cat, but from that one, small, unexpected act so much fear and loathing rises to the surface. Not wanting to cause a fuss, Sophie tries to hide the bite from her uptight husband, Otto, but then spends the rest of the book stressing that she may have caught rabies.

It is Sophie’s constant worrying, not just about the cat bite but the state of her husband’s rocky partnership with a fellow lawyer and the resulting social fall-out, that provides the novel’s momentum. Coupled with the fact that Sophie is plagued by memories of a past love affair with one of Otto’s clients, the reader can’t help but think that the Bentwoods are doomed, whichever way you look at it.

Despite the underlying tone of menace, this is a wonderfully realised examination of the human condition that does not resort to melodrama or cliche. A fine gem of a book – and well worth a second read.