Borrowed Finery

After September 11, reckoning with Paula Fox’s memoir, Borrowed Finery, is intellectually consoling. Like most people, I’m rollercoasting: Nothing means anything, everything’s urgent, life’s precious or, obviously, expendable. Her memoir asks: What does another life tell us? How is the manner in which a life is written significant?

Fox’s life has had its fair—or unfair—share of painful incidents, alarming events, betrayals, bad parents. But thinking and writing against the current American grain, Fox doesn’t deliver cause and effect dicta; she doesn’t blame others or luxuriate in neglect, succumbing to the narcissism of victimhood. Instead, she shapes her memoir with a light hand, clearing an unusual path to her psychology and history. Connections she might have forged to establish the story, as she does in her novels—though there too she masters the art of underexplanation—are mostly absent or understood by indirection. The reader connects to and makes sense of, or doesn’t, her psyche and worldview.

I once was surprised to find out that Paula Fox writes children’s books. Not after reading the preface to this book. She launches her memoir with a parable, using a suit, clothing— Borrowed Finery—as a trope for fashioning and rendering a self. The opening prefigures a work about human mysteries rather than revelations. It signals Fox’s exception to conventional wisdoms, reminding me of Paul Bowles’ elegant, enigmatic Moroccan stories.

“In that time I understood mouse money but not money,” she writes, whimsically characterizing her early poverty. In one sentence, Fox ensnares the adult, who is somehow forever a child, to suggest that no one is ever completely removed from childhood’s fantastical realm and claims. In her preface too she touches on materialism, capitalism, and proposes that the life she will construct in writing might be the sum of a subjective struggle between culture and politics.

Fox doles out the past in episodes spanning people and places. She leaves them and returns, leaves again. The book divides into sections: “Balmville,” “Hollywood,” “Long Island,” “Cuba,” “Florida,” “New Hampshire,” “New York City,” “Montréal,” “New York City,” “California,” and “Elise and Linda.” The reader hasn’t seen the name “Linda” before.

There are many kinds of surprise in Borrowed Finery, not the least Fox’s circumspection and reserve. Fox omits a lot—she never mentions becoming a writer, when she first published, any of that. We know, from how she reports listening to adult conversations when she was a child, that she loves words and ideas. We have a sense of the way she sees and pays attention: “Behind the door that closed off that uncanny space, I pictured Auntie, lying on her back in her bed, her eyes opened wide and unblinking, smoking cigarettes in the dark.” Those who know her human-suspense novel Desperate Characters will notice that Fox was once bitten by a cat. She makes profound use of a cat bite in the novel, not 138 unlike Shakespeare’s use of the handkerchief in Othello. But like Edith Wharton, who in “A Backward Glance” never mentions her divorce from Teddy Wharton, Fox is reticent, and what she withholds, she forces the reader to embellish, to fill out the suit she’s designed for us. In the end, Fox doesn’t tailor easy resolutions or cozy notions about redemption.

Looking through reviews of American novels, even a casual reader might be disgusted by how often the concept of “redemption” appears. Contemporary novels have become a repository for salvation; characters—and consequentially readers—are supposed to be saved at the end. Paula Fox avoids pious niceties. She claims a reality most American readers want to avoid—the possibility of failure, when good acts don’t replace bad ones in symmetries more appropriate to bad fiction. In Fox’s fiction, defeat and failure are normal.

Like her novels, her memoir is exceptional, not because she’s had a unique life, though she has probably, or at least a difficult one, but then who hasn’t. It’s how she chooses to represent it; how she manufactures meaning through style, with measure and intelligence. Her memoir is generative and evanescent. It speaks to the way life comes and goes, with its beauties and tragedies, through its balletic recording of transience and impermanence. Fox’s graceful writing and integrity give comfort in these darker days.

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