A cat bite is the through-line for this novel of despair about a childless middle-aged couple who feel the world crumbling around them. Otto and Sophie Bentwood live in a declining section of Brooklyn Heights. Otto has just dissolved his law partnership with Charlie Russel due largely to personality differences. Sophie is unable to find comfort in old friends such as Claire, who has nothing but occasional visits from her ex-husband to fill the emptiness of her own life. Everyone their age is appalled at the declining morals of the younger generation.
The river of sorrow flows over the course of a three-day weekend in which Sophie tries to tough out an injury from a stray cat which, literally, bites the hand that feeds it. More fearful of injections than of rabies, she reluctantly visits a hospital, where the staff’s rude behavior only deepens Otto and Sophie’s sense of alienation. As they ricochet from one bad moment to another, frustrations erupt intermittently between Otto and Sophie like small bursts of gunfire, followed by silences and feeble attempts at reconciliation. Memories of an extramarital love affair do nothing but exacerbate Sophie’s misery.
Though depressing, Desperate Characters unfolds with excellent exposition and realistic dialogue. I particularly liked the author’s description of a party host as a superficially charming but remote character: “He was like a man preceded into a room by acrobats.” Sophie recalls her mother during the Depression, proudly driving her car through a poor neighborhood, “her head locked into position like a piece of ordnance, eyes straight ahead, triumphant in her silence.”
Despite her craftsmanship, Paula Fox spoiled her work with unnecessary sexual references and offensive language. My three-star rating reflects my disappointment in a gifted writer capable of expressing herself much better.