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Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

February 5, 2010

I picked this novel up last weekend at the Harvard Book Store.  I had never heard of it or of Paula Fox, but I thought the description on the book jacket looked interesting. A hit in 1970 and out of print for many years since, the book is described as “a perfect short novel…a few characters, a small stretch of time; setting and action tightly confined.”  This description reminded me of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, which is also a short but powerful novel that takes place over just a few days.

Sophie and Otto are in fact “desperate characters.”  From a broken partnership to a robbery, from failed friendships to unexpected health concerns, over the course of just a few days their lives are quickly falling apart.  Much like Frank and April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road, Sophie and Otto don’t know where their unhappiness and unfulfillment stems from and they are unable to accurately express it, never mind try to overcome it.

It seems as though after 15 years of marriage these two people – at the same time – know each other perfectly and don’t know each other at all.  The reader realizes that Sophie and Otto are lost in a world of contradictions – their expensive brownstone overlooks a homeless man sleeping on the sidewalk, cries from a baby that could never be theirs are heard in their home, their relaxing summer cottage is in shambles.  As individuals, Sophie and Otto are falling apart, but their relationship is severed as well.

Sophie’s cry, “I wish someone would tell me how I can live,” is the culmination of disappointment, anger, frustration and fear that she does not have the power to tackle.  Good luck, Sophie and Otto.  It didn’t turn out so well for Frank and April.

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