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Born in the 1920s to nomadic, bohemian parents, Paula Fox is left at birth in a Manhattan orphanage, then cared for by a poor yet cultivated minister in upstate New York. Her parents, however, soon resurface. Her handsome father is a hard-drinking screenwriter who is, for young Paula, "part ally, part betrayer." Her mother is given to icy bursts of temper that punctuate a Born in the 1920s to nomadic, bohemian parents, Paula Fox is left at birth in a Manhattan orphanage, then cared for by a poor yet cultivated minister in upstate New York. Her parents, however, soon resurface. Her handsome father is a hard-drinking screenwriter who is, for young Paula, "part ally, part betrayer." Her mother is given to icy bursts of temper that punctuate a deep indifference. Never sharing more than a few moments with his daughter, Fox's father allows her to be shuttled from New York City, where she lives with her passive Spanish grandmother, to Cuba, where she roams freely on a relative's sugarcane plantation, to California, where she finds herself cast upon Hollywood's seedy margins. The thread binding these wanderings is the "borrowed finery" of the title of this astonishing memoir of one writer's unusual beginnings, which was instantly recognized as a modern classic.


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Born in the 1920s to nomadic, bohemian parents, Paula Fox is left at birth in a Manhattan orphanage, then cared for by a poor yet cultivated minister in upstate New York. Her parents, however, soon resurface. Her handsome father is a hard-drinking screenwriter who is, for young Paula, "part ally, part betrayer." Her mother is given to icy bursts of temper that punctuate a Born in the 1920s to nomadic, bohemian parents, Paula Fox is left at birth in a Manhattan orphanage, then cared for by a poor yet cultivated minister in upstate New York. Her parents, however, soon resurface. Her handsome father is a hard-drinking screenwriter who is, for young Paula, "part ally, part betrayer." Her mother is given to icy bursts of temper that punctuate a deep indifference. Never sharing more than a few moments with his daughter, Fox's father allows her to be shuttled from New York City, where she lives with her passive Spanish grandmother, to Cuba, where she roams freely on a relative's sugarcane plantation, to California, where she finds herself cast upon Hollywood's seedy margins. The thread binding these wanderings is the "borrowed finery" of the title of this astonishing memoir of one writer's unusual beginnings, which was instantly recognized as a modern classic.

30 review for Borrowed Finery: A Memoir

  1. 5 out of 5

    Peggy

    Paula Fox won me over with her Newbery prize winning historical novel The Slave Dancer, a beautifully written young adult novel about the middle passage and a young boy’s compliance with the slave trade. So when I found her memoir Borrowed Finery in the stacks recently, I knew it was a must-read. This is an unusual memoir, in that Paula Fox was an inconvenience to her parents, who dropped her off at the nearest orphanage shortly after she was born in 1923. Through a lucky set of coincidences, i Paula Fox won me over with her Newbery prize winning historical novel The Slave Dancer, a beautifully written young adult novel about the middle passage and a young boy’s compliance with the slave trade. So when I found her memoir Borrowed Finery in the stacks recently, I knew it was a must-read. This is an unusual memoir, in that Paula Fox was an inconvenience to her parents, who dropped her off at the nearest orphanage shortly after she was born in 1923. Through a lucky set of coincidences, in her early years she had a stable, loving home with a Congregational Minister in the Hudson River valley, known to her as Uncle Elwood. Her life was peripatetic thereafter, occasionally visited by her father, then claimed by her grandmother, Paula was often left with her parents’ friends, and she lived in a variety of living situations with random groups of adults in Florida, Manhattan, Cuba, California, Montreal, and other places. She was neglected and ignored, but the adults she met did not abuse her—in fact, she met kindness from several of them. Others treated her more as a buddy than as a child (including her father, a drunk who tried to make it in Hollywood as a screenwriter). Her mother, from a Cuban family who lost their land in the Spanish-American war, harbored the most resentment against Paula and made little effort to care for her. The Borrowed Finery in the title refers to the hand me down clothing that Paula received, much of it ill-fitting and inappropriate for a child. The memoir is written from a child’s point of view, a child who matures and becomes insightful, even a bit cynical, reflecting the sophisticated views of her parents. Fox sizes up characters in a pithy, compressed way. Her grandmother, for example, is elegantly described, “She paid no attention to the house or the woods or the river. Her landscape was interior, the countryside of her emotion.” How clearly childhood loneliness—and the disdain accompanying it—is conveyed. Fox’s nightmarish childhood is always fascinating, as are the strange assortment of adults that she meets. It’s without sentiment or self-pity, making the episodes detailed even more stark and sad. Anyone who likes a good memoir will enjoy this one by a masterful writer. Paula Fox is worth discovering.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Amy

    Wow! Borrowed Finery has accompanied me on my commute for the last several weeks. In her brief spurts of memory, Paula Fox manages to describe a neglected childhood without self-pity and with dazzling imagery and observations that leave me breathless: "Standing there on winter afternoons, gripping an iron rail with a mittened hand, I watched the last violet light of the setting sun, the streetlights came on all at once like a word spoken in unison, and I felt touched by an ecstatic stillness." " Wow! Borrowed Finery has accompanied me on my commute for the last several weeks. In her brief spurts of memory, Paula Fox manages to describe a neglected childhood without self-pity and with dazzling imagery and observations that leave me breathless: "Standing there on winter afternoons, gripping an iron rail with a mittened hand, I watched the last violet light of the setting sun, the streetlights came on all at once like a word spoken in unison, and I felt touched by an ecstatic stillness." "I didn't know where Cuba was, but I found it in a school atlas, a green lizard lying athwart a blue sea." I have only read one of her novels so far, but have two more on the shelf. I can't imagine being any more moved by them than I am by this memoir.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Susan

    This was recommended to me by a list of books that women should read. I really have no idea why, now that I've read it. I researched the author and she is well regarded for her style and beautiful sentences. However I found this autobiography meandering, full of name-dropping, and strangely episodic. It's not that it isn't interesting at times -she had a strange upbringing and it's amazing she turned out ok with the parents she had -but I can't recommend the book.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Laurel

    So basically I can't read 3 pages without remembering that Paula Fox will be Courtney Love's maternal grandmother. Paula Fox's mother Elsie, a screenwriter who had Paula when she was 19, will not really meet her Paula until she is 5 years old, because of Elsie's seeming & seething manic-depression and alcoholism. Elsie's mother Candelaria, who was married at 16, will have found and taken Paula from a foundling home at the age of 2 months, but will not keep her for long. Candelaria will try again So basically I can't read 3 pages without remembering that Paula Fox will be Courtney Love's maternal grandmother. Paula Fox's mother Elsie, a screenwriter who had Paula when she was 19, will not really meet her Paula until she is 5 years old, because of Elsie's seeming & seething manic-depression and alcoholism. Elsie's mother Candelaria, who was married at 16, will have found and taken Paula from a foundling home at the age of 2 months, but will not keep her for long. Candelaria will try again and take back Paula when she is 7, and when Paula is 9 Candelaria will move them to a sugar plantation in Cuba for 1 year. Paula will eventually have a daughter named Linda, when Paula is 20, who will be given up for adoption. Paula will want her back after 10 days, but she will not succeed. Linda will become a distinguished family therapist sometime after she gives birth to a daughter, Courtney, when Linda is 20. Courtney will have become an emancipated minor at 16. Linda will not find out Paula is her mother until later, after. Linda will write Paula a letter. The 1st words will be "Go Slow." Someday, Courtney will have her own daughter, Frances Bean, when Courtney is 28. Frances Bean, in utero, 3 months a fetus, will be the impetus for Courtney to get off heroin. Candelaria will spurn Elsie, who will reject Paula, who will give up Linda, who will lose Courtney, who will alienate Frances Bean. And this will be the 20th century.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jean

    This is one of those smallish, episodic books that I end up reading cover to cover several times because it’s just so interesting and jig-saw puzzle-ish. Her very sharp and straightforward, but never dull, descriptions can be fitted together in many ways, and amplify/explain each other as they settle in your mind. The author has a highly unusual set of biographical facts re where she lived, who cared for her, and what she experienced. Her presentation is the opposite of seamless, but I found it This is one of those smallish, episodic books that I end up reading cover to cover several times because it’s just so interesting and jig-saw puzzle-ish. Her very sharp and straightforward, but never dull, descriptions can be fitted together in many ways, and amplify/explain each other as they settle in your mind. The author has a highly unusual set of biographical facts re where she lived, who cared for her, and what she experienced. Her presentation is the opposite of seamless, but I found it very engaging and interesting.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Melissa Duclos

    This memoir is comprised of anecdotes which, taken together, detail the childhood and young adulthood of Fox. While these stories create a richly developed character, they don't do much in the way of narrative. I found myself bored by the story, often confused about how much time had passed in the author's life. There's no real tension in the story, and so there's nothing pulling the reader through the memoir.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Colleen O'Neill Conlan

    I read a collection of Fox's essays and stories a while back and wanted to read this memoir. Fox was almost literally the baby in a basket left on the steps of the orphanage by her freewheeling parents. In her case, her grandmother scooped her back up and brought her home. And so begins a life lived all over the world, with all kinds of caregivers. The book is divided in chapters marking each of the places she briefly calls home, starting in upstate New York, with a bachelor minister and his eld I read a collection of Fox's essays and stories a while back and wanted to read this memoir. Fox was almost literally the baby in a basket left on the steps of the orphanage by her freewheeling parents. In her case, her grandmother scooped her back up and brought her home. And so begins a life lived all over the world, with all kinds of caregivers. The book is divided in chapters marking each of the places she briefly calls home, starting in upstate New York, with a bachelor minister and his elderly mother, her beloved "Uncle" Elwood. This seems to be the home that gave her the most stability and love. Her father flits in and out of her life, and she has a clear, if conflicted love, for him. He's a screenwriter and an alcoholic, and seems to be pulled between his wife and duty (and some real affection) toward his child. It's pretty clear that they can't all live together for any significant stretch of time, although they do for brief periods. Even how she talks about her parents is telling: her father is "Daddy" while her mother is "my mother," and eventually, "Elsie." This book is a small study of dysfunction and abandonment. The final chapters talk about her giving birth and giving up her daughter for adoption. When she had misgivings and tried to get her back (much like her own grandmother retrieved her as a baby) she wasn't allowed to. They reunited many years later, and the memoir ends with their reconnection, so it's hard to know how their relationship is playing out. That daughter, Linda Carroll, is the mother of musician Courtney Love. Theirs has apparently been a contemptuous relationship. And it seems to continue with Courtney's daughter, Frances Bean Cobain, who is estranged from her mother. Candelaria, Elsie, Paula, Linda, Courtney, Frances Bean . . . a long line of bright, gifted, and perhaps unmothered women. But that's just a sideline to this story. Fox doesn't tell her story like a survivor, but more like a participant/observer. And I'm not even sure "survivor" is the right word, as she certainly doesn't present herself as victimized. True, she may not have had a traditional childhood, but she did have these rich experiences that have made her the person, and the writer, that she is. Next, on to some of her fiction.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Ann M

    I love the writing here, the sharp memories of the author's first 21 years -- then there is a jump to only two events in the rest of her life. One, when the daughter she gave up, unwillingly, for adoption finds her, and then when her very un-maternal mother dies, both when the author is in or near her seventies (I calculate). It's as if she's saying that her shunted to-and-fro childhood was all that mattered, and the telling of anecdotes is her way of getting a grip on it. (She does have a later I love the writing here, the sharp memories of the author's first 21 years -- then there is a jump to only two events in the rest of her life. One, when the daughter she gave up, unwillingly, for adoption finds her, and then when her very un-maternal mother dies, both when the author is in or near her seventies (I calculate). It's as if she's saying that her shunted to-and-fro childhood was all that mattered, and the telling of anecdotes is her way of getting a grip on it. (She does have a later memoir, tho.) Abandoned at birth, she was raised in NY's Hudson Valley by a loving minister until her Spanish grandmother claimed her and kept her in a tiny apartment in Queens until taking her to Cuba for a year until the revolution then back to NYC until her parents claimed her and deposited her -- alone with a housekeeper -- in Florida for a year... etc. It's a wonder she maintained any psychic wholeness. She recounts being the last girl at her boarding school in Montreal, because her father has invited her, late, for Christmas break. The headmistress takes her to a concert a few days before she herself is due to leave for France to visit relatives. It is 1942, and the concert is interrupted by the announcement that France has surrendered to Hitler. It's a patchy recollection of things and events and names are dropped without analysis but I really enjoyed this book.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Paula

    Very difficult to read such a grim memoir. Have started to put it down several times. Such a thrown-away child. p17 "Time was long in those days, without measure. I marched through the mornings as if there were nothing behind me or in front of me, and all I carried, lightly, was the present, a moment without end." p21 Looking at National Geographic magazines: "...I was startled each time by the singularity of everything that lived, whether in seashells, houses, nests, temples, logs, or forests, an Very difficult to read such a grim memoir. Have started to put it down several times. Such a thrown-away child. p17 "Time was long in those days, without measure. I marched through the mornings as if there were nothing behind me or in front of me, and all I carried, lightly, was the present, a moment without end." p21 Looking at National Geographic magazines: "...I was startled each time by the singularity of everything that lived, whether in seashells, houses, nests, temples, logs, or forests, and in the multitude of ways creatures shelter and sustain themselves." p30 Her devotion to Uncle Elwood who had taken her in: "...everything counted and...a word spoken as meant contained a mysterious energy that could awaken thought and feeling in both speaker and listener." p57 telling her father she had returned to a camp where she had been left: " 'Ah well...people who've been parceled out and knocked around are always returning to the past, retracing their steps.' He spoke distantly, in a detached voice." p75 "Time deceives memory."

  10. 4 out of 5

    Trisha

    A tale of neglectful and mean-spirited parents, and the heartbreaking childhood they crafted for their daughter. What a gift it is to know the simple, normal joys of family life such as having parents who stay and keep their promises, being able to sleep in the same bed every night, enjoying dinner around the table, knowing love and hugs and affection, etc. This isn't a book I'll revisit or keep, but Fox offers some haunting reflections that move you to pause and consider how powerfully one gene A tale of neglectful and mean-spirited parents, and the heartbreaking childhood they crafted for their daughter. What a gift it is to know the simple, normal joys of family life such as having parents who stay and keep their promises, being able to sleep in the same bed every night, enjoying dinner around the table, knowing love and hugs and affection, etc. This isn't a book I'll revisit or keep, but Fox offers some haunting reflections that move you to pause and consider how powerfully one generation shapes another and to give thanks for the glory of the routine and ordinary.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Jameson Fink

    Borrowed Finery contains possibly the best writing of any book I’ve ever read. I became emotionally invested in Paula Fox’s resonant memoir almost immediately. Every sentence is an evocative masterpiece, yet devoid of superfluous words. The ending is perfect. I can’t love this book more, a pinnacle of skill and storytelling.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Virginia

    This certainly started off "grim," to use another reviewer's word - dismissive refrigerator mother, spineless, sarcastic drunk father, and a parade of pleasant but temporary, well, place-givers rather than caregivers. The warmest, most nurturing caregiver, a young minister who lived with his chronically ill mother, vanishes from Paula's life when she is 6. People appear and disappear, create fleeting impressions, make way for other people. I loved the constant time changes - isn't that how we vi This certainly started off "grim," to use another reviewer's word - dismissive refrigerator mother, spineless, sarcastic drunk father, and a parade of pleasant but temporary, well, place-givers rather than caregivers. The warmest, most nurturing caregiver, a young minister who lived with his chronically ill mother, vanishes from Paula's life when she is 6. People appear and disappear, create fleeting impressions, make way for other people. I loved the constant time changes - isn't that how we view our pasts anyway? - and they do follow a certain memory logic. I hadn't known anything about Paula Fox, apart from a few of her children's books I'd read in college so was quite surprised by the information she springs on the reader in the final pages of this memoir. (A quick glance at her wiki page supplies the name of her possible youthful fling - um, wow - and a further look at her daughter's memoirs takes the story in a whole other direction.) Now that I have this insight into Fox's early life, I'm inclined to look up her books again and reread those I found engaging all those years ago. This is from her NYT obituary:“Children know about pain and fear and unhappiness and betrayal,” she said in an interview quoted in the reference work Contemporary Authors. “And we do them a disservice by trying to sugarcoat dark truths. There is an odd kind of debauchery I’ve noticed, particularly in societies that consider themselves ‘democratic’ or ‘liberal’: They display the gory details but hide meaning, especially if it is ambiguous or disturbing.”

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jaden

    Biography Borrowed Finery is a memoir of Paula Fox’s life. Her story takes place in Manhattan where she is born. Her father, Paul, is a drunken screenwriter and her mother, Elsie, who is very cold hearted, place her in an orphanage. Her grandmother rescued her and takes her to Cuba. From there she bounces back and forth from Cuba and the states. At the age of five she is taken in by a Congregational minister, Uncle Elwood. A few years later her parents come back into her life until her mother ma Biography Borrowed Finery is a memoir of Paula Fox’s life. Her story takes place in Manhattan where she is born. Her father, Paul, is a drunken screenwriter and her mother, Elsie, who is very cold hearted, place her in an orphanage. Her grandmother rescued her and takes her to Cuba. From there she bounces back and forth from Cuba and the states. At the age of five she is taken in by a Congregational minister, Uncle Elwood. A few years later her parents come back into her life until her mother makes her father decide between her or Paula. She is then sent to live with another stranger. She lives in Queens, Cuba, Jacksonville, Florida, and Montreal. In between these moves there are painful shards of time she spends with her terrible parents. At the age of 18 she is sent to Hollywood in the care of an alcoholic family friend. In the last chapter, Paula Fox describes visiting her Mother, Elsie, who she hadn’t seen for many years. They shake hands but Paula hates her so much she can’t even use the same bathroom as her. Two weeks before she turned 21, she gave birth to her daughter who she gave up for adoption. Her daughter found her years later and they wrote back and forth to each other.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Tony Fellino

    The non linear style of narration may jar some readers not used to memories being presented as short, sometimes unrelated segments this way. For someone with a short attention span I found her short blocks of memory being offered up like tiny little poems or snapshots in a photo album really appealing. I found some of those short paragraphs had a much more deeply poignant and profound impact than they would have if she had elaborated on them with with more pathos and self pitying detail. The sho The non linear style of narration may jar some readers not used to memories being presented as short, sometimes unrelated segments this way. For someone with a short attention span I found her short blocks of memory being offered up like tiny little poems or snapshots in a photo album really appealing. I found some of those short paragraphs had a much more deeply poignant and profound impact than they would have if she had elaborated on them with with more pathos and self pitying detail. The short, blunt, terse way she describes terribly sad situations and ends her description very bluntly like a door suddenly closing on you leaves the last sentence reverberating in your mind really effectively. I love her style of writing even if others may find it alienating. Its elegant and dignified but never cold. There is warmth and compassion but its not vain and self conscious kindness. Its the kindness of an individual who has suffered enough to know to spend that kindness wisely and cautiously. I found this a haunting and darkly enchanting book. A lot like Elsie herself.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Catherine

    She had a terrible childhood. We get flashes of feeling about it, but she recounts her life in such a detached way that there's no real incentive to get emotionally invested. I got through the first half of the book fine, but the end just started grating on me. Nothing tugging me along. Her mother seems like an interesting character (a terrible person, but an interesting character)—I just wish the author had speculated more on her mother and their relationship. The memoir is a strung-up bunch of She had a terrible childhood. We get flashes of feeling about it, but she recounts her life in such a detached way that there's no real incentive to get emotionally invested. I got through the first half of the book fine, but the end just started grating on me. Nothing tugging me along. Her mother seems like an interesting character (a terrible person, but an interesting character)—I just wish the author had speculated more on her mother and their relationship. The memoir is a strung-up bunch of anecdotes, bouncing between stories ranging from "vaguely interesting" to "not at all interesting." I could've done without her innumerable name drops about celebrities she shared elevators with or saw in hallways. What did those stories add, except to say "Here's a famous person I encountered"? In my literary opinion it was pretty up its own butt.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Brian

    Jumped around too much. The character's life included moving around a lot, but it was told in a way that left little tying together all the various sub-stories at each place she lived. It made it hard to relate to her or cheer for her much. It barely mentioned anything risque and certainly pulled punches on almost anything sexual which could have brought a lot of reality into a memoir that includes coming of age from childhood all the way to adulthood. Too many characters with brief presences in Jumped around too much. The character's life included moving around a lot, but it was told in a way that left little tying together all the various sub-stories at each place she lived. It made it hard to relate to her or cheer for her much. It barely mentioned anything risque and certainly pulled punches on almost anything sexual which could have brought a lot of reality into a memoir that includes coming of age from childhood all the way to adulthood. Too many characters with brief presences in the book made it hard to track who was who, how they were related to the author, etc. Very messy and unengaging. I considered not finishing it, but there was just enough good stuff to give it promise that it could get better or come together well, but it did neither.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Sandra

    I find myself putting more and more down after I’ve given them a reasonable chance. Fox’s memoir is well-written, but I kind of knew what was coming and just didn’t want to read about it. Plus, hers is a very personal story, but I wasn’t that interested. No offense, just not really my cup of tea.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Mary

    Not a very stable childhood and this reflects in her writing (just my opinion of course). It comes across as disjointed & doesn't 'flow'. Not a very stable childhood and this reflects in her writing (just my opinion of course). It comes across as disjointed & doesn't 'flow'.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Rem Ryals

    Paula Fox writes with amazing detail about a childhood spent passed around among relatives like hand-me-down clothes. The power of the book is that Fox retains the innocent, resilient gaze of the child she once was. The result is an almost forensic examination of a life lived among lost adults. Especially heartbreaking is her clear-eyed depiction of a cruel, jealous mother.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Smg

    Beautifully written

  21. 4 out of 5

    Kassie Shanafelt

    Just not particularly thrilling in my opinion.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Luanne Castle

    What a life! I was enthralled, following the details of Fox’s life, as she was moved about from person to person, city to city, even living in Cuba for a year and a half. Fox is 91 years old, and the book takes place up to the point that she is 21 years old, except for a short section at the end, so the book is not an exhaustive autobiography–probably why it’s called a memoir. Nevertheless, it didn’t feel like a memoir. There wasn’t a strong MDQ driving the book. Occasionally, it is even anecdot What a life! I was enthralled, following the details of Fox’s life, as she was moved about from person to person, city to city, even living in Cuba for a year and a half. Fox is 91 years old, and the book takes place up to the point that she is 21 years old, except for a short section at the end, so the book is not an exhaustive autobiography–probably why it’s called a memoir. Nevertheless, it didn’t feel like a memoir. There wasn’t a strong MDQ driving the book. Occasionally, it is even anecdotal. That said, I was fascinated, both by the events and by her exquisite sentences. Her mother abandoned her at birth; she was a cruel woman who seemed to blame infant (and child) daughter for the loss of her “spring.” Her father and mother were married, and the father complied with the mother’s wishes. He also seemed to be quite cruel and a severe alcoholic, although as a child Fox was obsessed with him. One of the first times Fox was with her parents, they asked her to order from room service. When the meal came, she realized she had forgotten to order milk and mentioned it. Her father took the tray of food and threw it out the window. Many people are familiar with some basics of Fox’s life. For instance, when she was 21 she gave birth to a baby girl. Linda was the result of a one-night stand, although Fox had already been married to someone else. Fox despaired of being able to take care of her daughter and gave her up for adoption–only to almost immediately change her mind. She was told it was too late to change her mind (it wasn’t). Eventually, Fox was reunited with adult Linda and they have a good relationship. Linda is the mother of three daughters. Two of the granddaughters Fox has a great relationship with. The other granddaughter through Linda is Courtney Love, who Paula does not think is a good person. It does make me wonder if Love inherited a gene passed on to Linda from Fox from her own horrible mother. Although I know that an unknown writer can’t publish a memoir that relies on chronology and anecdote in the way that Fox’s can, I did learn many things from her book. Just soaking up her elegant phrasing makes me aspire to write better. Then I also saw that she easily moved forward in time when she wanted to “tie up” an anecdote. With her graceful style, I really had to pay attention to even notice such a move.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Kallie

    Paula Fox is clear about what saved her as a small child born to an indifferent, volatile mother: the love and kindness of her adoptive father. Unfortunately for her, he never got custody of F, who was sometimes subject to her movie writer father's uneven, dipsomaniacal love when he came to fetch her, and during those visits exposed to her toxic mother's malevolent attention. The mother, Elsie, is like the witch or evil stepmother in some fairy tale, but scarier because less predictable. We coul Paula Fox is clear about what saved her as a small child born to an indifferent, volatile mother: the love and kindness of her adoptive father. Unfortunately for her, he never got custody of F, who was sometimes subject to her movie writer father's uneven, dipsomaniacal love when he came to fetch her, and during those visits exposed to her toxic mother's malevolent attention. The mother, Elsie, is like the witch or evil stepmother in some fairy tale, but scarier because less predictable. We could wonder how fair this mother portrait is, but the detail with which Fox describes their encounters brings to life a complex woman who would allow few (if any) to know her vulnerable or tender feelings, which she likely thought of as weaknesses. In a way, one wishes that Fox had been able to overcome her revulsion toward her mother, and embark on an investigation of how she and two of her brothers became so poisonously narcissistic. (This family dynamic is brilliantly dramatized in The Widow's Children: A Novel.) We could surmise that the inept, sentimental naivete and helplessness of their mother -- the grandmother with whom Fox sometimes lived -- played a part in raising such fierce children. At any rate, Fox's harrowing life as a young, unprotected woman in the 1940s is lived apart from her family, and those years alone -- brilliantly evoked rather than laboriously described -- could have forged her remarkable writing talent.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Audrey

    This book is a non fiction collection of reminiscences of the author's early life from birth until her late teens, there is a last chapter that has a story of her reuniting with her adult daughter she put up for adoption, but mostly it deals with her childhood. This takes place in the early 1920's and I found the book a little disjointed it seemed to jump from different time and places, but hey her early life was like that very her birth, when her parents put her up for adoption, but then when sh This book is a non fiction collection of reminiscences of the author's early life from birth until her late teens, there is a last chapter that has a story of her reuniting with her adult daughter she put up for adoption, but mostly it deals with her childhood. This takes place in the early 1920's and I found the book a little disjointed it seemed to jump from different time and places, but hey her early life was like that very her birth, when her parents put her up for adoption, but then when she's 10 days old her grandmother comes to the orphanage and gets her and from then on she is passed on from non caring person to non caring person. The person that took the best care of her, Minister who is poor and lives with and takes care of his elderly mother was my favorite but she doesn't get to stay with for long and we never really find out more about him after that, she hints at things about him, but he's never brought back into the story. I would have like to known what happened to him. The parents bring neglect to an art form, the father is the most involved of the two, and that's not saying much! He's a drunk who makes kind of a living from screenwriting although he and his wife are without funds most of the time and Paula's mother wants nothing to do with her daughter and doesn't hide it from her. This story was complicated and felt a little cold and impersonal to me, but when I consider how she was brought up with almost no love or affection, I can see why her story would come across this way.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Chana

    It was fascinating, partly because she is Courtney Love's grandmother. She doesn't talk about that in the book but I was surprised. Before I read this book the only thing I knew about Paula Fox was that she was the author of One-Eyed Cat, a book I read last year. So she had quite the interesting childhood. As the back of the book says she was "born in the twenties to nomadic, Bohemian parents." Her mother doesn't want anything to do with her, tells her husband to take her to an orphanage. Her Cub It was fascinating, partly because she is Courtney Love's grandmother. She doesn't talk about that in the book but I was surprised. Before I read this book the only thing I knew about Paula Fox was that she was the author of One-Eyed Cat, a book I read last year. So she had quite the interesting childhood. As the back of the book says she was "born in the twenties to nomadic, Bohemian parents." Her mother doesn't want anything to do with her, tells her husband to take her to an orphanage. Her Cuban grandmother takes her out of there pretty quick but she has to get back to Cuba so leaves her with friends of one of her children. A minister visiting the family who has infant Paula takes an interest in her and takes her in. Dad shows up again when Paula is about six and Paula bounces around between her parents, her grandmother, the minister and various people she gets left with. It really is wild. What I find amazing is that no one seemed to mistreat her as a child, her mother was incapable of loving her, but no one beats her or molests her and she successfully makes friends and attends school wherever she finds herself. Obviously she made a success of herself as an adult as well. She writes beautifully, very detailed but never boring.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Linda

    Memoirs are one of my favorite genere's, especially if the person writing them has gone on to make a name for themsevles in the literary field. My introduction to Paula Fox came with the book THE SLAVE DANCER which was categorized as a young adult book when I read it. That has not always been the classiest of categories but it is one that has had great impact on a score of young readers. I admired THE SLAVE DANCER for its social and moral themes, and though it was written at a less difficult lev Memoirs are one of my favorite genere's, especially if the person writing them has gone on to make a name for themsevles in the literary field. My introduction to Paula Fox came with the book THE SLAVE DANCER which was categorized as a young adult book when I read it. That has not always been the classiest of categories but it is one that has had great impact on a score of young readers. I admired THE SLAVE DANCER for its social and moral themes, and though it was written at a less difficult level it was a sophisticated book. So, I read Fox's memoir with hope of glimpsing what made her such a prolific writer. I think a sense of never being at home was the overriding emotion that Fox evoked in this book. She was born of non-caring parents, both glamorous and not interested. She had to move again and again because her parents either abandoned her, or needed to leave her somewhwere for awhile. No one seemed that interested in her. Her title comes from the clothes that she wore occasionally when she needed to look presentable. I suppose her compassion for people who have had to make do and make it are the driving force in her work. I would reccomend this book.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Penny

    This is an unusual memoir. Although she presents a mainly linear narrative, Paula Fox offers glimpses of her life seemingly as they occur to her. The book begins when she is 17, poor, working in a clothes shop. This little vignette sets the tone for the whole book as she offers the reader facts about herself: she was poor; she has just one suit, too warm for LA; it was a discount clothes store. But these facts, although related, are not really what she is telling us - they are more an oblique co This is an unusual memoir. Although she presents a mainly linear narrative, Paula Fox offers glimpses of her life seemingly as they occur to her. The book begins when she is 17, poor, working in a clothes shop. This little vignette sets the tone for the whole book as she offers the reader facts about herself: she was poor; she has just one suit, too warm for LA; it was a discount clothes store. But these facts, although related, are not really what she is telling us - they are more an oblique commentary on her life, or on the people she meets. Sometimes what she wants to convey with this sideways look is obvious, sometimes it is obscure and begs for another, closer, reading. These episodes, added into the narrative of her life, have the effect of true memory - triggering as it does rememberence of other events, feelings or thoughts. It is this technique that makes Borrowed Finery such a fine book. It feels like a trip inside real memory: there is a sketched-in route, but unexpected landmarks that to the casual eye seem almost out of place, but on reflection prove to be the very crux of the matter. A book to treasure and re-read.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Joyce

    Understated account of a writer's peripatetic childhood in the 20s and 30s. Born to an alcoholic screenwriter and a wealthy Cuban-American, her upbringing is as tenuous as they come. Her mother couldn't stand her and didn't want her, even as a young girl. "It's either her or me" she told Paula's father. She lived with an elderly minister, with her Cuban grandmother on Long Island, with her extended wealthy family in Cuba, and with various friends of her parents who would take her on for a few mo Understated account of a writer's peripatetic childhood in the 20s and 30s. Born to an alcoholic screenwriter and a wealthy Cuban-American, her upbringing is as tenuous as they come. Her mother couldn't stand her and didn't want her, even as a young girl. "It's either her or me" she told Paula's father. She lived with an elderly minister, with her Cuban grandmother on Long Island, with her extended wealthy family in Cuba, and with various friends of her parents who would take her on for a few months or a year. "I would have been one of those children found in a wilderness, written about in case histories, if it had not been for Uncle Elwood; I had learned civility and kindness from him. I knew how to behave in parlous circumstances, to temporize and compromise, a lesson taught me by my father. From my mother I had gained the knowledge of how to contend with the madness of people. And from black servants, I had learned what justice was." This book brought home the fact that childhood is a fairly recent invention.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Kallie

    Paula Fox did not enjoy a nurturing childhood. That is clear from several of her novels (The Widow's Children, The Western Coast, The Servant). Borrowed Finery is another sort of story, an evocative mosaic of memories, impressions, the many 'homes' from which she was whisked at whim. It is a book more effective for its fragmentary quality. If it does not have the rounded quality of Desperate Characters, how could a book based on memory be honest and read like a novel? There are fine portraits of Paula Fox did not enjoy a nurturing childhood. That is clear from several of her novels (The Widow's Children, The Western Coast, The Servant). Borrowed Finery is another sort of story, an evocative mosaic of memories, impressions, the many 'homes' from which she was whisked at whim. It is a book more effective for its fragmentary quality. If it does not have the rounded quality of Desperate Characters, how could a book based on memory be honest and read like a novel? There are fine portraits of her guardian, her mother (with whom she did not live for long periods, fortunately; the woman is complex and interesting, but frightening to imagine with a child), her feckless Bohemian father. She thanks her guardian, the minister who adopted her as an infant, for character qualities that supported her emotionally, and made her a better human. I recently re-read Borrowed Finery (I have re-read several of Fox's novels) and will likely do so again.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Brooke

    Paula Fox's parents are they type of people who should dominate a memoir. They should gnaw through the pages with merciless teeth and wild living. Their daughter should exist only as a pitied whisper behind the never-ending party to which she was never formally invited. This book is brilliant as it holds so much more than rejected intimacy and childhood lost. Fox brings us into the households of the people who love her,who are often very different than the people responsible for her. There are pl Paula Fox's parents are they type of people who should dominate a memoir. They should gnaw through the pages with merciless teeth and wild living. Their daughter should exist only as a pitied whisper behind the never-ending party to which she was never formally invited. This book is brilliant as it holds so much more than rejected intimacy and childhood lost. Fox brings us into the households of the people who love her,who are often very different than the people responsible for her. There are plentiful and breathtaking moments of kindness interspersed with casual and brutal cruelty. I look forward to reading more of Paula Fox.

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