Archives for posts with tag: Paula Fox


“A good novel begins with a small question and ends with a bigger one.” PAULA FOX

April 22, 2013 marks the 90th birthday of novelist Paula Fox, author of DESPERATE CHARACTERS, originally published by W.W. Norton in 1970. The novel fell out of print and was championed by Jonathan Franzen (author of The Corrections and Freedom) — who stumbled upon it in a library — but has been available since 1999 in a new edition with an introduction by Franzen.

Frazen is passionate about DESPERATE CHARACTERS and states in his introduction:  “The first time I read Desperate Characters in 1991, I 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. It seemed inarguably great.” 


Paula Fox is recipient of the 2013 Hadada Prize from THE PARIS REVIEW. The prize is presented each year to “a distinguished member of the writing community who has made a strong and unique contribution to literature.” Previous recipients include Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Peter Matthiessen, George Plimpton, Philip Roth, and William Styron.

Like Franzen, I stumbled upon DESPERATE CHARACTERS over a decade ago (in my case, the encounter occurred at a Salvation Army thrift shop in Chicago) and was immediately captivated by the novel. If you love literary novels — and, at 176 pages, this is a relatively short one — don’t miss DESPERATE CHARACTERS. At, used copies of the novel are available for as low as 24 cents plus shipping — and you can probably find it at your local library. Enjoy.

Happy 90th birthday, Paula Fox! You are an inspiration to all novelists! 


In 1991, novelist Jonathan Franzen (author of The Corrections and Freedom) was browsing the shelves at the Yaddo library when he spotted a slim volume, Desperate Characters by Paula Fox. Franzen sat down and began to read — and didn’t leave his chair until he’d finished the novel.

When Franzen attempted to order a copy at a bookstore, he learned the book was out of print. After trying, without success, to convince people in the publishing business to reissue Desperate Characters, he eventually mentioned his reverence for the novel in a March/April 1996 Harper’s article entitled “Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels” (subscription required to read the article). Tom Bissell, an editor at W.W. Norton, took notice — and the company published the book in 1999, with an introduction by Franzen.

In his introduction, Franzen swoons over the novel, stating: “The first time I read Desperate Characters in 1991, I 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. It seemed inarguably great.” 


My first reading of Desperate Characters predated the Jonathan Franzen frenzy over the novel. I found a copy (cover at left) while browsing not at the Yaddo artists’ colony but at a Salvation Army store in Chicago and, like Franzen, ended up reading the book in one sitting. I agree that the novel is “inarguably great.”

What’s Desperate Characters about? Well, spelling out the story almost makes it sound inane — a woman feeds a stray cat, the cat bites her, and she spends the rest of the book wondering if she will perish from the bite. As Franzen put it, “I had never read a book before that was about the indistinguishability between an interior crisis and an exterior crisis.” 

A New York Times article by Melanie Rehak from 2001 discusses Franzen’s role in the reissue of Desperate Characters and describes the novel as “a ruthless, elegant portrayal of the social paranoia of a bourgeois Brooklyn couple named Sophie and Otto Brentwood.”

Find Desperate Characters by Paula Fox at Fox, who will turn 90 next year, has led a fascinating life. More about that in another post.