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.