After September 11, reckoning with Paula Fox's memoir, Borrowed Finery, is intellectually consoling. Like most people, I'm roller-coasting: Nothing means anything, everything's urgent, life's precious or, obviously, expendable. Her memoir asks: What does another life tell us? How is the manner in which a life is written significant?
Fox's life has had its fairóor unfairóshare of painful incidents, alarming events, betrayals, bad parents. But thinking and writing against the current American grain, Fox doesn't deliver cause-and-effect dicta; she doesn't blame others or luxuriate in neglect, succumbing to the narcissism of victimhood. Instead, she shapes her memoir with a light hand, clearing an unusual path to her psychology and history. Connections she might have forged to establish the story, as she does in her novelsóthough there too she masters the art of underexplanationóare mostly absent or understood by indirection. The reader connects to and makes sense of, or doesn't, her psyche and worldview.
I once was surprised to find out that Paula Fox writes children's books. Not after reading the preface to this book. She launches her memoir with a parable, using a suit, clothingóBorrowed Fineryóas a trope for fashioning and rendering a self. The opening prefigures a work about human mysteries rather than revelations. It signals Fox's exception to conventional wisdoms, reminding me of Paul Bowles's elegant, enigmatic Moroccan stories.
"In that time I understood mouse money but not money," she writes, whimsically characterizing her early poverty. In one sentence, Fox ensares the adult, who is somehow forever a child, to suggest that no one is ever completely removed from childhood's fantastical realm and claims. In her preface too she touches on materialism, capitalism, and proposes that the life she will construct in writing might be the sum of a subjective struggle between culture and politics.
Fox doles out the past in episodes spanning people and places. She leaves them and returns, leaves again. The book divides into sections: "Balmville," "Hollywood," "Long Island," "Cuba," "Florida," "New Hampshire," "New York City," "Montréal," "New York City," "California," and "Elise and Linda." The reader hasn't seen the name "Linda" before.