While reading Paula Fox”s keen memoir, “Borrowed Finery,” it is amusing and heartening to recall that Fox is an award-winning author of children”s books. (She”s also written six novels, most of which are back in print now.)
There aren”t many goodnight-moon”s or fuzzy stuffed animals to cuddle up against in her new novel. It seems, if anything, that cold truth and not any delusion of Norman Rockwell-like family life is the ultimate slayer of sentimentality. It is also the best though often the most difficult way to forge any real understanding of ourselves. Get rid of the rose-colored glasses, Fox seems to be saying since our memories shape who we are, they should not be taken lightly.
Like the fragmentary paragraphs that compose “Borrowed Finery,” Fox”s childhood was unceasingly daunting and rocky. She is constantly fending for herself on treacherous waters. So Fox”s ability to observe and remember so much with such knife-sharp intensity and a dizzying memory seems doubly astounding, considering that most of her childhood was spent struggling just to keep her head above water.
This is no easy task, and Fox tells a remarkable, somewhat bewildering story. Each chapter, with the exception of the last, is titled after a location where Fox lives, oftentimes more than once, and usually briefly her relocations are seemingly endless. For two years Fox lives with her grandmother in Cuba she spends time in Montreal, Florida, New Hampshire and New York, and even drives to California with a middle-aged alcoholic woman, an acquaintance of her stepmother”s. Since the book brings us up to Fox”s early twenties, it is important to keep in mind that much of her early years are spent with nearly no guidance. It is up to the reader to view this as detrimental, beneficial, neither or both. Not accidentally, there are no easy answers. This breathless feeling, not knowing exactly where or with whom you”ll end up, is one of the strange pleasures in reading “Borrowed Finery.”
The memoir begins in Balmsville, New York, where a five year old Fox lives with her Uncle Elwood Corning (not her real uncle), the minister of a church and a literal saint of a man. Corning has taken Fox into his household after Fox is abandoned in a Manhattan orphanage by her parents, rescued by her grandmother (who must soon return to Cuba) and then taken on a honeymoon to Virginia by a newlywed friend of her real uncle”s. Now the reader can catch his/her breath. For a few years, Paula has some happy constancy in her life with Uncle Elwood. Quickly her parents come and snatch it away.
Her parents, Paul and Elsie Fox, are outwardly glamorous and excessive, in the same vein as the Fitzgeralds (F. Scott, among others, has a few cameos), devoted passionately to their drinks, cigarettes and madcap outings. This does not leave much time for their daughter. Besides Paula, they are the heart and soul (though Elsie often seems to lack both) of the memoir, and their behavior towards their daughter ranges from hysterical to brutal. Paul is a writer, an alcoholic who wrote the script for “The Last Train from Madrid,” a film that Graham Greene called “the worst movie I ever saw.” It is hard not to like Paul, which makes him all the more tragic in his failures the scenes between him and his daughter are fascinating. The same can be said for Elsie, who seems less real and more like Cruella DeVille disguised as a flapper. In one terrible scene, Elsie chucks her full drink at Paula. Fox writes, “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 my existence were so calamitous for my mother.”
In the book”s final chapter, Fox describes her first visit to Elsie after 38 years. By then Elsie is 92 years old. In the same chapter Fox relates her first meeting with her daughter, Linda, whom Fox had put up for adoption when she was 21 and living in California. Here, as in the rest of “Borrowed Finery,” Fox assesses these scenes through painfully clear lenses, without denying us the pleasure of reading a line like “plump middle-aged women cavorted like aproned elephants.”