And was love suffocation?

Dear Paula

With their throats tight with resignation and boredom, the desperate characters in your eponymous novel (1970) verbalize, in their own way, only one request: I wish somebody would tell me how to live.

The narrative, set during the Vietnam War, is confined to the nightmarish atmosphere of the three days when Sophie, a childless middle-aged translator, waits for the result of an examination. In carefully drafted cutting-edge paragraphs, we follow her worn-out daily life as the wife of Otto, a lawyer who has just lost his longtime partner – and friend.

All the characters are, in their own way, overwhelmed by the dreaded confrontation with the end of a path or a story. Despite trying to hide their eyes behind Goethe’s collection of complete works, stacked on their bookshelf, Otto and Sophie are surrounded by the corrosion of their time: dirt, poverty, depredations, racism and death.

When, driven by guilt and pity, Sophie tries to feed a street cat who regularly visits her garden, she has her hand bitten by the animal. Only living things can hurt us. This trivial event triggers a series of repressed memories and small disasters, which starts to torment the couple’s life together. The cracks in the seemingly solid wall of this marriage are opening themselves like large abysses: the pain had always been there, waiting, held in their hand.

The sharpness of your writing accentuates, through lean phrases, the contrast between the clean plot and the fractures of the characters: the end of the relationship with a lover; the difficulties in communicating with a distant mother; moral conflicts with an idealist partner; a marriage founded on lies and violent blows of truth. And was love suffocation? The tension of sharing the uncomfortable confrontation with one’s own boundaries is kept between the lines of one’s wound: the cat and its bite.

For the next three days, Sophie will speculate about what that bite might bring to her. May she have contracted rabies? Would she want to undergo treatment? In the midst of this waiting, a never fully verbalized self-analysis will unfold: Sophie will question herself about what life has brought to her along the years.

Sophie is the woman who never surrenders completely to chance and to people: she does not let herself be bitten. However, Sophie is also, paradoxically, the woman who yearns for the sharp effect of something real and vivid on her skin. Fear and desire to be wounded mingle with each other, as a form of atonement for guilt, a form of deliverance: “God, if I am rabid, I am equal to what is outside.”

The atmosphere of despair that affects the couple’s life acquires, gradually, the escalating nature of psychological suspense. You remove with pitiless acuity the characters’ many layers; you leave them naked in the solitude of shared despair. In a cadence of increasing tension, the core of the plot is suffocated by the weight of the unsaid – everything that the characters deny to each other and to themselves, in accumulated layers of double meaning. Incommunicability, gaps and silences: against this stone, in the end, everything is broken.

Yours truly,


Francesco Hayez Vengeance is Sworn (detail) 1851.

“And was love suffocation? Yet she could not expunge what she now knew. It was commitment, not even choice, just commitment, and against that rock everything broke, resolutions and desires, words and presumptions.” ― Paula Fox, Desperate Characters

“No,” she said. “No, not a chance. That cat was perfectly healthy. You know me. I want to be the saint who tames wild creatures.” ― Paula Fox, Desperate Characters

“That they should be sitting across from each other in the same way they had sat for so many years and that the habitual intimacy between them could have suffered so wrenching a violation without there being evidence of it, was harrowing to Sophie. If, all these months, she had so ardently lived a life apart from Otto without his sensing something, it meant that their marriage had run down long before she had met Francis; either that, or worse—once she had stepped outside rules, definitions, there were none. Constructions had no true life. Ticking away inside the carapace of ordinary life and its sketchy agreements was anarchy.” ― Paula Fox, Desperate Characters

“He patted her shoulder with something akin to tenderness—perhaps it was tenderness, grown clumsy from disuse.” ― Paula Fox, Desperate Characters

“For a second, they held each other’s gaze. “That button’s loose,” she said, touching his jacket. “I’ll get you something …” he said, but he didn’t move away. They had averted what was ordinary; they had felt briefly the force of something original, unknown, between them. Even as she tried to name it, it was dissolving, and he left her suddenly just as she had forgotten what she was trying to remember.” ― Paula Fox, Desperate Characters

“He smiled and bent forward, a hand on each knee, his truculence gleaming through his smile like a stone under water.”  ― Paula Fox, Desperate Characters

“It was a dead hole, smelling of synthetic leather and disinfectant, both of which odors seemed to emanate from the torn scratched material of the seats that lined the three walls. It smelled of the tobacco ashes which had flooded the two standing metal ashtrays. On the chromium lip of one, a cigar butt gleamed wetly like a chewed piece of beef. There was the smell of peanut shells and of the waxy candy wrappers that littered the floor, the smell of old newspapers, dry, inky, smothering and faintly like a urinal, the smell of sweat from armpits and groins and backs and faces, pouring out and drying up in the lifeless air, the smell of clothes—cleaning fluids imbedded in fabric and blooming horribly in the warm sweetish air, picking at the nostrils like thorns—all the exudations of the human flesh, a bouquet of animal being, flowing out, drying up, but leaving a peculiar and ineradicable odor of despair in the room as though chemistry was transformed into spirit, an ascension of a kind,
There was in that room an underlying confusion in the function of the senses. Smell became color, color became smell. Mute started at mute so intently they might have been listening with their eyes, and hearing grew preternaturally acute, yet waited only for the familiar syllables of surnames. Taste died, mouth opened in the negative drowsiness of waiting.” ― Paula Fox, Desperate Characters

About the book

  • W. W. Norton Company, 2015, 192 p. Goodreads
  • Flamingo, 2003, 176 p. Goodreads
  • First published in 1970
  • My rating: 4 stars
  • The book was made into a movie starring Shirley MacLaine in 1971 (IMDb).

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.