Sometimes you pick up a book and start reading and something just clicks. You can tell from the very first page that you are holding in your hands a perfect read. That's what I'm experiencing right now with Paula Fox's Borrowed Finery. Although I am only halfway through the book is it too soon to say I think this may easily find it's way into my best reads list at the end of the year? Yes, it's that good.
I was already familiar with Fox and had actually borrowed this book from the library earlier last year (but didn't get to it before the due date), so when Kathy suggested I read her book The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe when I was looking for books about women and war, I thought I would start with her memoir about her childhood. To say she had a difficult childhood is putting it rather mildly. The stories she tells about growing up make for really devastating yet compelling reading. You can't help but keep turning pages even while you cringe to think what she endured.
I am always amazed at how authors can write so eloquently about troubled upbringings. And even more amazed at their recall of events and experiences from so many years in the past. I have a shoddy memory and would not even be able to begin to piece together more than impressions of my own youth, and certainly not complete with vivid details and dialogue. Is there simply a hazy line between fact and fiction? However Fox has managed to bring to life her past, she's done so with a keen eye--dissecting her childhood with razor sharp insight.
Paula Fox was born in 1923 and was left in a foundling home by her mother. Her Cuban grandmother rescued her and Fox spent her childhood cross crossing the US living with various family members and friends with occasional brief and tumultuous visits with her parents. Her father was a screenwriter who would often "lift a few glasses" (a few glasses too many it would seem). Her mother was mercurial and not at all suited to have children.
I want to share a couple of teasers from the book. In this first Fox is recounting a visit her parents made to the home of a minister with whom Paula was staying temporarily. He and his mother provided her with a certain amount of stability and she has many happy memories of living with him. One of the most difficult things for Fox was trying to understand her mother's behavior.
"All at once she flung the glass and its contents in my direction. Water and pieces of ice slid down my arms and over my dress. The dog crouched at my feet. My father was in the doorway, holding my mother tight in his arms. Then he took me away from the apartment."
"At some hour he must have returned with me. Perhaps we waited for the minister outside the front door."
"For years I assumed responsibility for all that happened in my life, even for events over which I had not the slightest control. It was not out of generosity of mind or spirit that I did so. It was a hopeless wish that I would discover why my birth and existence were so calamitous for my mother."
Another time a five-year-old Paula walks in on her father with another woman unknowingly and he drags her off to the kitchen, put her over his knee and began to spank her. She was at a complete loss why it was happening. The black maid, who had been ironing in the kitchen, spoke out telling him it wasn't right what he was doing.
"My father looked up at her as if surprised by her presence. I was astonished that she had defended me and lifted my head from his knee to stare at her. Years later, when I thought about her--and I thought about her often--about how much she had to overcome in the way of an enforced and habitual discretion, how a sense of justice in her had outweighed the risk--I realized how brave she had been."
I'll write about this more when I finish and then plan on moving right on next to her book The Coldest Winter. As a matter of fact I might just have to read my way through all her work. She's mostly written children's fiction, but also these two memoirs and a handful of novels for adults. If the rest are anywhere near as good I am in for a treat. This was a National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist in 2001. I guess I will have to find out who won that year. As what could be better than this?
If you are a fan of memoirs, or just like really good writing, do yourself a favor and add this to your reading list!