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.
Novelist Paula Fox’s impressionistic vignettes of her early life, spanning New York City to California and Cuba, are haunting, humorous, and evocative.
Fox, best known for her children’s and young adult novels like The Slave Dancer (and for being Courtney Love’s grandma!) didn’t have an easy start in life. Her father was an alcoholic and her mother didn’t bond well with her. She was adopted by a minister she calls Uncle Elwood and grows up happily with him, except when her parents and grandmother sporadically reappear, uproot her, and move her to California or Cuba. You can imagine how that feels for a quiet, sensitive and observant child.
In an instant, I realized the precariousness of my circumstances. I felt the earth crumble beneath my feet. I tottered on the edge of an abyss. If I fell, I knew I would fall forever.
Borrowed Finery is a memoir told through sketched-out, detailed scenes that still remain diaphanous with elements left to the imagination, or just lost to time. This kind of structure, or lack thereof, isn’t a favorite of some readers or especially among recent memoir trends, which insist on a clear narrative structured like a novel with beginning/middle/end and a lesson learned/challenge overcome/splendidly satisfying character arc, but I found the difference refreshing and almost exhilarating. I haven’t read anything like this in a long time and I’d love to read more that’s off that beaten path.
This takes you back to scenes from your own life, those snapshots that stand out in memory for one reason or another — or perhaps no discernible reason at all — but that have left an indelible impression nonetheless. Fox describes so well what her experiences felt like without venturing into the maudlin or self-pitying, and manages to capture how a child viewed these things. It’s not particularly traumatic, but rather shows what adults’ casual disregard for a child’s emotional development and sense of security can do. She details scenes through her adulthood as well although childhood is the focus, and ends with touching depictions of her reconnection with the daughter she gave up for adoption.
Her writing is lush and lovely, and her descriptions absolutely delightful and sometimes surprising in how fitting they are, like that the lips of Elwood’s parishioners are “too red to be true,” and a high school classmate who has “domesticity already dawning in her eyes.” Or her description of this relative, both hilarious and immediately picture-able: “He entered a room like Conrad Veight in the movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, giving the impression he was creeping along a wall.”
I found this an interesting example of an unconventional memoir, or perhaps just one that doesn’t get written (published?) anymore. When so much time has passed it’s difficult to reconstruct a linear narrative, but scenes still stand out in full color. There’s something rich and vibrant and wonderful in just describing them, remembering them to a reader, and telling a story through the fragments.
Some favorite lines:
“I felt a kind of happiness and, at the same time, an apprehension—like that of a traveler who returns to a country where she has endured inexplicable suffering.”
“At first I had felt exhilarated by freedom. But soon I began to be lonely. There was no one who said my name for hours at a time.”
“Time was long in those days, without measure. I marched through the mornings as if there were nothing behind me or in front of me, and all I carried, lightly, was the present, a moment without end.”
Borrowed Finery: A Memoir
by Paula Fox