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Borrowed Finery: A Memoir

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"Born in the twenties to nomadic, bohemian parents, Paula Fox is left at birth in a Manhattan orphanage. Rescued at the last moment, she is taken into the care of a poor but cultivated Congregational minister in upstate New York. But her parents soon resurface. Her handsome father is a hard-drinking raconteur and screenwriter (among his credits is The Last Train to Madrid, called by Graham Greene "the worst movie I ever saw") who is, for young Paula, "part ally, part betrayer." Her mother, a frightening, infrequent presence, is given to icy ...
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Borrowed Finery: A Memoir

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"Born in the twenties to nomadic, bohemian parents, Paula Fox is left at birth in a Manhattan orphanage. Rescued at the last moment, she is taken into the care of a poor but cultivated Congregational minister in upstate New York. But her parents soon resurface. Her handsome father is a hard-drinking raconteur and screenwriter (among his credits is The Last Train to Madrid, called by Graham Greene "the worst movie I ever saw") who is, for young Paula, "part ally, part betrayer." Her mother, a frightening, infrequent presence, is given to icy bursts of temper that punctuate a deep indifference. How, Fox wonders, is this woman "enough of an organic being to have carried me in her belly?"" Never sharing more than a few scattered moments with their daughter, Fox's parents shuttle her from one exotic place to another. In New York City she lives with her passive Spanish grandmother. In Cuba she wanders about freely on a sugarcane plantation owned by a wealthy distant relative. In Florida she is left with a housekeeper she has known only for days. In California she finds herself cast away on the dismal margins of Hollywood. Throughout, famous actors and literary celebrities glitteringly appear and then fade away - John Wayne, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Maxwell Perkins, Orson Welles, James Cagney, and Stella Adler, to name a few. The thread binding Fox's wanderings is the "borrowed finery" of the title - a few pieces of clothing, almost always lent by kindhearted strangers, that offer Fox a rare glimpse of permanency.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Dumped at birth in a Manhattan orphanage, Paula Fox spent her early years under the care of a poor, cultivated minister in upstate New York. And then her parents resurfaced. To outsiders, this nomadic pair seemed colorful: Her father was a handsome, well-regarded screenwriter, and both earned reputations as hard-partying bohemians. But their young daughter paid a price for her parents' free-footed unconventionality. Shunted from place to place, from foster homes to relatives, she created herself from the borrowed finery of half strangers. The Los Angeles Times called this perceptive memoir "restrained yet unsparing".
Michiko Kakutani
Pointillist in detail, lapidary in method and brutal in effect, Borrowed Finery is an eloquent, disturbing memoir.
The New York Times
Chris Lehmann
Captures the off-balance existential wooziness of experience in compact, unbidden epiphanies . . . [A] singular, unsentimental memoir.
The Washington Post Book World
Merle Rubin
Restrained yet unsparing . . . [Fox's] tools are a lucid style, a cool, mildly ironic tone . . .
Los Angeles Times
From The Critics
Best known for her award-winning children's books, seventy-eight-year-old Fox is beginning to receive overdue attention for her novels for adults. Fox is awfully good, and her new memoir is a rare gem. Shortly after her birth in 1923, Fox was left in a Manhattan foundling home by her parents, who come off as a poorer, less-successful version of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Gregarious and handsome, Fox's father was a heavy-drinking screenwriter, responsible for The Last Train to Madrid, which Graham Greene called "the worst movie I ever saw." Her mother, a cruel and jealous woman, was so horrible that Fox wonders, was she "enough of an organic being to have carried me in her belly?" Fortunately, Fox was taken in by a congregational minister, a generous soul who treated her kindly and read to her every night. Eventually her parents resurfaced, taking her to one of many new locations, then leaving her with good-hearted relatives, friends or strangers. What is amazing about Fox's splendidly written memoir is that the author never sinks to self-pity; instead, she simply describes her unusual, provisional early life and allows the reader to generate his own emotional response.
—James Schiff

Publishers Weekly
Newbery Award-winning novelist Fox (A Servant's Tale) lived a rather accidental, devastating childhood. Her Jazz Age parents dropped her at an orphanage shortly after her birth in 1923, from which she was rescued by a kindly clergyman and passed along, as in a "fire brigade," to various "rescuers" odd relatives or her parents' drinking buddies, mostly. Her scriptwriter daddy, a happy drunk, cared but was careless. Mom, on the other hand, with her "cold radiant smile," was openly rejecting. Her occasional reluctant meetings with Fox felt "as if we were being continually introduced to each other." No small wonder, then, that at age 21, Fox surrendered her own daughter for adoption. This could have been another Mommy Dearest, except that Fox is elegantly understated, relying on well-chosen detail and striking images to tell her tale. A nasty auntie crochets in "colors that suggested mud or blood or urine" and keeps her work in a sack with handles like "copperhead snakes." Her mother's one contribution to her education is teaching her solitaire. A childhood beau walks "lurching to the side like the knight's move in chess." Visiting her dying mother, Fox can't bear to use a toilet her mother might have used, and flees outdoors to use a tree. It would all be unbearably melancholic (? la Jean Rhys), except that Fox survives. The hard-won truths of her youth form the basis for the sensitive focus on family dynamics that characterizes her children's fiction notably Blowfish Live in the Sea. Fox deserves a comeback, even if this slim memoir is too tragic for popular taste. (Oct. 1) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In her first memoir, accomplished novelist and children's book author Fox (Desperate Characters) recounts the chaotic and often traumatic circumstances of her childhood. With parents too unstable and self-absorbed to care for her, she was shuffled from doorstep to boarding school, from New York to Cuba to Montreal. "By chance, by good fortune, I had landed in the hands of a fire brigade that passed me along from person to person until I was safe," she writes. The first rescuer was the Rev. Elwood Corning, or, as she fondly refers to him, Uncle Elwood, the "rock of ages." From there, her childhood was a roller coaster ride of uncertainty. Brief periods of living with her parents were painful and confusing. Her mother was like a cyclone of contempt, and her father, despite his affection, was too feeble to shield her. Fox tells her stories with no trace of self-pity. Her style is honest without being laborious, and her recollections bear the unmistakable mark of uncontrived innocence. Highly recommended for public libraries. Stephanie Maher, Warwick, RI Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Acclaimed novelist Fox (Desperate Characters, reprinted 1999, etc.) describes with astonishing detachment a peripatetic childhood buffeted by the whims of her neurotic parents. Fox's alcoholic father, Paul, left her in a Manhattan foundling home days after her birth in 1923 at the insistence of her 19-year-old mother, Elsie, "panic-stricken and ungovernable in her haste to have done with me." Taken in by a kindly Congregational minister, who raised her in the small town of Balmville, New York, Paula was subjected to occasional alarming excursions with her parents. In a New York hotel, when the little girl observed there was no milk with her dinner, Paul took the tray and dropped it out a window. When she was six, they removed her from the minister's nurturance; Fox describes this parting as "an amputation." By the time she was 18, she'd lived in Hollywood, in Kew Gardens, Long Island, with her Spanish grandmother (and several uncles as bizarre as their sister, Elsie), in Cuba, Florida, New Hampshire, and at a boarding school in Montreal. Most of these moves were abruptly decreed by Elsie or Paul (they divorced when Paula was 12) for motives Fox does not attempt to analyze. She delineates her own emotions with delicate restraint, and her prose is as fine as in her fiction. (On a California earthquake: "For moments, the world's heart had stopped.") This would be an unbearably sad story if not for paragraphs subtly interspersed throughout that show young Paula discovering the pleasure of words and the power of literature, which "calmed my turbulence, eased my restlessness and shame." When she was 21, Fox too had an unwanted baby, but the book's final pages show her reunited with thedaughter she gave up for adoption. Without a hint of facile optimism, Fox suggests you can not only survive a traumatic past but learn from it. Austere yet painfully moving: a refreshing contrast to the spate of whiny memoirs currently crowding bookstore shelves.
From the Publisher
A New York Times Editor's Choice

National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee

"[A] singular, unsentimental memoir of her formative years."—Chris Lehmann, Washington Post Book World

"Restrained yet unsparing . . . Fox is an accomplished writer, with a gift for penetrating to the heart of complex feelings and complicated situations."—Merle Rubin, Los Angeles Times

"The memoir has a cumulative power. . . . You feel you've been privy to something memorable and weighty: the birth, however difficult, of an artist's—a woman artist's—sensibility."—Daniel Mendelsohn, New York Magazine

"One of the most impressive books of the year."—Gerald Howard, The Nation

"Pointillist in detail, lapidary in method and brutal in effect, Borrowed Finery is an eloquent, disturbing memoir— and the perfect bookend to the author's powerful novels."—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312425197
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 11/12/2005
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 1,029,697
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.51 (d)

Meet the Author

Paula Fox

Paula Fox is the author of five novels, including Desperate Characters, The Widow's Children, and Poor George. She is also a Newberry Award-winning children's book author. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.


Paula Fox is the author of one previous memoir, Borrowed Finery, and six novels, including Desperate Characters, The Widow's Children, and Poor George. She is also a Newbery Award–winning children's book author. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Author biography courtesy of Henry Holt and Company.

Good To Know

In our interview, Fox shared some fun facts about herself:

"My first job was working in a dress shop in Los Angeles in 1940, for $7 a week."

"I like to cook; it is, for me, a happy combination of mindlessness and purpose."

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    1. Hometown:
      Brooklyn, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      April 22, 1923
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      Attended Columbia University

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

When I was seventeen, I found a job in what was then downtown Los Angeles in a store where dresses were sold for a dollar each. The store survived through its monthly going-out-of-business sales.

   Every few days I was required to descend to the basement to bring up fresh stock to replace what had been sold. It was a vast space, barely lit by a weak bulb hanging from a low ceiling, and appeared to extend beyond the boundaries of the store itself. In its damp reaches I sometimes glimpsed a rat shuttling along a pipe, its naked tail like an earthworm.

    Against one wall, piled up on roughly carpentered wood shelves, were flimsy boxes of dresses. In front of the opposite wall was an enormous cardboard cutout, at least ten feet high, of Santa Claus, his sled, and his reindeer. I guessed this was displayed in the store upstairs at Christmastime.

    One morning when I was sent to the basement for dresses, I noticed drops of sweat on Santa's brow. Later it occurred to me that the pipe along which I'd seen rats running extended over the cutout, and leaks could account for the appearance of sweat. But at the time I imagined it was because of his outfit. He was as inappropriately dressed for the California climate as I was in my thick blue tweed suit.

    I've long forgotten who gave the suit to me. I do recall it was a couple of sizes too big and sewn of such grimly durable wool that the jacket and skirt could have stood upright on the floor.

    I earned scant pay at a number of jobs I found and lost that year, barely enough for rent andfood with nothing to spare for clothes. What I owned in the way of a wardrobe could have fitted into the sort of suitcase now referred to in luggage ads as a "weekender," a few scraps that would cover me but wouldn't serve in extremes of weather—and, of course, the blue tweed suit that I wore to work in the Los Angeles dress store day after day.

    In that time I understood mouse money but not cat money. Five dollars were real. I could stretch them so they would last. I was bewildered even by the thought of fifty dollars. How much was $50?

    The actress ZaSu Pitts, in a publicity still—an advertisement for the movie Greed made in 1923, the year I was born, that showed her crouching half naked among heaps of gold coins, an expression of demented rapacity on her face—embodied my view of American capitalism when I was a young girl. As I grew older, my attitude about money changed. I began to see how complex it was, how some people accumulate it for its own sake, driven by forces as mysterious to me as those that drive termites to build mounds that attain heights of as much as forty feet in certain parts of the world.

    At the same time that I began to acquire material things, my appetite for them was aroused. Yet in my mind's eye, the image of ZaSu Pitts holding out handfuls of gold coins, not offering them but gloating over her possession of them, persists, an image both condemnatory and triumphant.

Excerpted from Borrowed Finery by Paula Fox. Copyright © 2001 by Paula Fox. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 1, 2008


    What a wonderful book. Sometimes very sad, but a great story. Must read.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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