Borrowed Finery/Paula Fox: Reflections

Saturday, February 2, 2013

A dozen years ago, Paula Fox published Borrowed Finery, her memoir of a fractured childhood. She had reached her mid-seventies. She had long before attended Columbia, published adult novels deemed "brilliant" and "devastating," gained a reputation (and many awards) as a children's book author (Maurice's Room debuted in 1966; some twenty books for younger readers later, in 1999, she was publishing Amzat and His Brothers), and taught at the University of Pennsylvania, my own alma mater, though I, never believing myself worthy of a "real" writer's education, foolishly lost out on the opportunity to learn from her.

She wrote Borrowed Finery to tell the story of her young life.

It could not have been more lonesome, nor more confusing, the life that Paula led. She was the daughter of two self-consumed parents who left her to a series of caretakers while they tooled around the world or lost themselves to a miasma of their own making. Paula's happiest years were her earliest years, when she grew up in the gentle care of a pastor/local journalist who introduced her to books, encouraged her curiosity, and gave her a safe haven. She had continuity then, love—two things that would soon elude her as she was moved from the pastor's home to Hollywood to Long Island to Cuba to New York City to Florida to Montreal, among other places. Often she was left to her own devices. Sometimes her mother appeared and made demands, or her father reached out, then snapped. There were good uncles and bad uncles. There were friends who came and went, a stint among plantation workers, a teacher whose kindness mattered until it, like all else, vanished.

Borrowed Finery of is a memoir fashioned out of scenes and white space, painful particulars, gorgeous lines, stunning autobiographical cliffs and plummets. Sometimes all that is remembered is a story half-told. Sometimes it's a detail—flowers that smell of subway stations, a great grandfather who counts priests in Barcelona, the awareness (Annie Dillard like) of becoming aware. Sometimes there are long exercises in trying to remember, confessions of gaps, delays in understanding, whorled what-ifs. Maybe this. Maybe that. How could she know?

As her readers we admire her self-constraint, her implied theme making, her way of finding answers for herself—or, if not answers, a way of moving forward, and not back.

Paula Fox is brilliant. She writes of her early life with her minister benefactor like this:

I can still recall the startled pleasure I felt that Sunday in church when I realized his sermon was indeed about a waterfall. I grasped consciously for an instant what had been implicit in every aspect of daily life with Uncle Elwood—that everything counted and that a word spoken as meant contained a mysterious energy that could awaken thought and feeling in both speaker and listener.
For more thoughts on memoir making and prompt exercises, please visit my dedicated Handling the Truth page.


Katrina said...

Beth, I've had Borrowed Finery on my bookshelf for many years, and yet haven't ever read it. Your words are sending me in search of it. Love the excerpt you quote.

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