Borrowed Finery: A Memoir

Borrowed Finery: A Memoir

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by Paula Fox
     
 

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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…  See more details below

Overview

"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

bn.com
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".
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

“Pointillist in detail, lapidary in method and brutal in effect...an eloquent, disturbing memoir.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

“Original and elegant...A celebration of resilience--both of character and of the memoir form.” —Sandra Scofield, Chicago Tribune

“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

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780805071849
Publisher:
Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
09/28/2002
Pages:
224
Product dimensions:
4.44(w) x 10.54(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

From Borrowed Finery:

My parents returned from Europe after a sojourn of three or four years, when I was eleven. They slid into my sight standing on the deck of a small passenger ship out of Marseille that docked in New York City on the Hudson River. They were returning home after their adventures, the most recent being their flight a few weeks earlier from the Balearic Island of Ibiza during the early days of the Spanish Civil War.

It had been years since I'd seen them. They were as handsome as movie stars. Smoke trailed like a festive streamer from the cigarette my mother held between two fingers of her right hand. When she realized we'd spotted her, she waved once and her head was momentarily wreathed in smoke. The gangplank was lowered thunderously across the abyss between the deck and the pier. Passengers began to trickle across it. Suddenly my parents were standing before us, a steamer trunk like a third presence between them. I knew that trunk; I'd seen it in Provincetown years earlier.

Meet the Author

Paula Fox is the author of the memoirs The Coldest Winter and Borrowed Finery, five novels, and a Newberry Award-winning children's book. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Brief Biography

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

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5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
What a wonderful book. Sometimes very sad, but a great story. Must read.