“The Widow’s Children”
But once in the world, she learned everyone’s lesson – families were not as they seemed, she grew artful in spotting the cracks in domestic facades. Wasn’t everyone damaged….
For many years, a book – The Widow’s Children – sat on a shelf in my bookcase untouched because I had read that the author – Paula Fox – tended toward the somber although many critics consider Fox one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Most of Fox’s works were published in the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s, so many of her books are out of print which means Fox is not as well-known as she was 30 years ago.
When the writer, Jonathan Franzen – wrote an introduction to Fox’s Desperate Characters for a reprint (the original was published in 1970), the decision to move The Widow’s Children from the bookshelf to my nightstand was easy. Such a move was akin to RSVP’ing “yes” to a wedding except that I was a no-show. The book stayed at the bottom of the stack for a very long time because reading a sad and by some accounts, depressing book takes a certain frame of mind and commitment, that I just didn’t have until recently.
In reading older issues of the Paris Review, I came across an interview entitled Paula Fox, The Art of Fiction No 181 published in the summer of 2004 by Oliver Broudy, who spent several days with the author at her home in Brooklyn. 81 years old at the time, Fox explained herself – her childhood, teen years, marriages – and her commitment to writing despite numerous rejections. She compares writing to having a singing voice: you either have it or you don’t, or as she said “You can’t teach people to sing if they don’t have a natural voice,” which reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s essay entitled Late Bloomers, that was originally published in the October 20, 2008 issue of The New Yorker magazine.
Gladwell argued that there are prodigies in this world but that there are also very talented people who need time to develop their talent and whose success rides on someone believing and supporting them. Paula Fox believed in herself – the way she saw things and her consciousness – which is what convinced me to finally read The Widow’s Children – a somewhat autobiographical story about making sense of the “chaos that most of us live in.”
Published in 1976, The Widow’s Children is the story of a highly dysfunctional family (is there any other kind?) who gather in New York City for an evening. At the center of the story is Laura Maldonado Clapper, a sardonic 55-year old, twice married woman with an acidic tongue who spares no one in her path. Her second husband, Desmond Clapper drinks like a fish and does his best to stay outside his wife’s razor-sharp radar. The Clappers are staying at a hotel preparing to take a ship to Africa the next day when the phone rings with news that Laura’s mother, Alma Maldonado (the widow) has passed away.
Told over 7 chapters, The Widow’s Children begins when the various family members and friends gather at the hotel for drinks before going out to dinner. Laura has chosen not to share the information of her mother’s death with the others and carries on as if nothing has happened. The basis of the story is set in the first three chapters (Drinks, Corridor, and Restaurant) where the reader learns about the family and the characters in the story. Nothing is spared with open hostility, seething resentment, long-held grudges, barely concealed jealousy, contempt, and aloofness openly displayed on nearly every page.
The last four chapters – The Messenger, The Brothers, Clara, and The Funeral – tie the story together as news of Alma’s death reaches the family members and they prepare for the funeral. It is in these chapters that we see open wounds exposed, personal agendas pursued, and just how self involved the characters are. The beauty of Fox’s writing is in the peeling away of the layers of each character. Instead of the good guys and the bad guys, the reader sees the good, the bad, and the helpless, which is what makes the story so powerful.
When would Laura give up her pretense that they were a family? One grew out, away from family, the real connections of one’s life elsewhere.