“Desperate Characters” was written by Paul Fox more than 40 years ago (1970) and yet, the story seems timeless. Sophie and Otto Brentwood are in their 40’s and have been married 15 years. Childless (and not really unhappy about it), well-educated, and established (he’s a lawyer, she’s a translator of books), they have a brownstone in Brooklyn with a modern stainless steel equipped kitchen, cedar planked floors, and rooms that seamlessly flow into each other (the result of removing the sliding doors). There is a Mercedes parked outside in a coveted street parking space that Otto reluctantly uses only when leaving town for fear of losing his space. And, there is the weekend home in the village of Flynders on Long Island which is neither on the water nor part of the Hamptons social scene. Inhabiting a world both in Brooklyn and Flynders in which they have nothing in common with the locals or the neighbors, Sophie and Otto are the ultimate gentrifiers basking in the idea of living in a changing area but horrified by the people and activity outside their windows.
The story takes place over a weekend when many dramas are going on. Otto’s law firm partner and oldest childhood friend, Charlie Russel decides to leave the firm and end their partnership which is traumatic for both parties despite their intense contempt for each other. Sophie, in an act of kindness feeds a stray cat some food outside her kitchen door and is bitten by the animal which leaves her shocked and wounded. Terrified that she may contract rabies, Sophie at first downplays the possibility and then is preoccupied with the possibility she may die, for she has no interest in having 14 shots in the stomach to save herself.
Through the dramas, the reader is given an intimate look at the Brentwood’s marriage which is contentious, acidic, and full of simmering rage below restrained exteriors. Otto is angry at his law partner, his wife, the poor, the young, realtors, neighbors, locals, and the bureaucracy that seems to inhabit his life. He is sick of movies, books, parties, and Sophie’s friends and yet he realizes he loves Sophie who is “so tangled in his life that the time he had sensed she wanted to go away from him…brought him more suffering than he had conceived it possible for him to feel.”
Sophie for her part is miserable but is helpless to change her life out of fear of the unknown – better to suffer the known then risk what she isn’t sure of for an unspecified reward. She allows life to unfold and accepts with grace, albeit bitterness the disappointments and sadness that come with a passionless marriage, a failed love affair, and the possibility she might die. Together, Sophie and Otto feel they are different from the rest of the world – almost apart from it rather than part of it and this illusion is at the center of their unhappiness.
A quick read at 190 pages laid out in 13 chapters, “Desperate Characters” is a thought-provoking book that will leave the reader with a better understanding of reluctance, longing, and acceptance.