The writer Paula Fox, winner of a National Book award, a Newbery Medal, and the Hans Christian Andersen award for lifetime achievement, died in Brooklyn, New York, last week at the age of 93.
Though the prizes she received went mostly to her fiction for children and young adults, she is remembered now as “a writer’s writer,” thanks, in large part, to novelist Jonathan Franzen, who chanced upon Fox’s 1970 novel, Desperate Characters, while on retreat at the Yaddo artists’ colony. Astonished by Fox’s spare, masterful style, Franzen went on to push for the republication of her early work. In an introduction to the Norton edition of Desperate Characters, Franzen wrote, “There’s hardly an extraneous or arbitrary word to be found in the book. Rigor and thematic density of such magnitude doesn’t happen by accident, and yet here the novel is, soaring above every other work of American realist fiction since the Second World War.” It was, he said, “obviously superior to any novel by Fox’s contemporaries John Updike, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow.”
Paula Fox’s childhood was unsettled and traumatic. As she described in a memoir, Borrowed Finery, her father, a charming, hard-drinking script doctor, and her mother, a glamor-loving Cuban émigré, abandoned her at a foundling hospital when she was a baby. They reclaimed her from time to time, usually upending whatever home others had given her only to send her away again to live with virtual strangers or attend, for a while, a finishing school in Canada. An early marriage left her with a daughter, whom she herself reluctantly gave up for adoption; the singer and artist Courtney Love is Fox’s granddaughter by that daughter.
After two divorces, Fox’s third marriage, to the writer and critic Martin Greenberg, prevailed. In an interview with The Paris Review, Fox described how the two met. She had been taking a writing class at Columbia taught by Louis Simpson. “I wrote a story called ‘Man on the Roof,’ and he looked at me in such an odd way after I’d written it. And he made me read it in front of the class. I sent that story, in fact, to my husband, Martin, who was then the editor of Commentary, who rejected it.” Fox is also survived by Greenberg, one of her sons from her second marriage, and numerous grandchildren.
Fox had wanted to be a writer since the age of seven, but the circumstances of her life meant that she did not publish the first of her six novels for adults, Poor George, until she was in her early forties. She went on to write more than twenty books for children, the best known of which are The Slave Dancer, which won the preeminent children’s book award, Newbery Medal, and A Place Apart, which won the 1983 National Book Award.