Desperate Characters was the book with which I completed my #20booksofsummer. A book I would never have heard of had it not been for the enthusiastic reviews of other bloggers.
It is a beautifully written novel it explores with some dark humour, and compelling drama the changing society of the 1960s.
Sophie and Otto Bentwood are a privileged couple living in a beautifully elegant apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Their lives are ordered and filled with lovely things, they drive a Mercedes, have a holiday home on Long Island, they have successfully insulated themselves from a very different society that exists close by. A world of slum housing, sickness and poverty.
“The Bentwoods had a high income. They had no children and, since they were both just over forty (Sophie was two months older than Otto), they didn’t anticipate any. They could purchase pretty much what they wanted. They had a Mercedes-Benz sedan and a house on Long Island with a long-term mortgage, which was hardly a burden any more.”
Sophie and Otto are terribly smug, comfortably secure in their world of privilege. Within sight of their New York home, lies this other world. When Sophie is bitten a cat which comes from that other world, it is the first unsettling incident in a series, which together shake the security and complacency of the world the Bentwoods rely on. It is early evening, and the Bentwoods are having dinner, Sophie has been feeding the stray cat that has been appearing regularly, against her husband’s advice.
“The cat’s back rose convulsively to press against her hand. She smiled, wondering how often, if ever before, the cat had felt a friendly human touch, and she was still smiling as the cat reared up on its hind legs, even as it struck at her with extended claws, smiling right up to that second when it sank its teeth into the back of her left hand and hung from her flesh so that she nearly fell forward, stunned and horrified, yet conscious enough of Otto’s presence to smother the cry that arose in her throat as she jerked her hand back from that circle of barbed wire.”
The cat is definitely a symbol of that other world, the danger which deep down both the Bentwoods feel is close by. This is the world which the couple have so far done a good job of distancing themselves from – they view from a distance, turning away with distaste.
Sophie pretends great unconcern about the bite, which immediately begins to swell, showing signs of infection and causing a lot of pain. Yet, in reality Sophie is deeply wounded, she sees the bite as a personal attack. Sophie is oddly shaken by the cat bite, but she and Otto are to be shaken again and again during that weekend.
Later that same evening Sophie and Otto attend a drinks party at a friend’s house, Otto not wanting to lose his precious parking place, decide they should walk. Sophie hides her feeling of nausea, and on their short walk to an equally smart and privileged home, they can’t help but discuss the neighbourhood, the habits of the ‘they’ who live within sight of their home. At the party the word rabies is first used – there hasn’t been a case for years, Sophie should get a tetanus injection, but really shouldn’t have anything more to worry about. That word in itself, is quite enough to ratchet up the tension, and to increase Sophie’s feeling of deep unease. Sophie is oddly reluctant to seek medical help – she can’t face what might result from seeking help – the rabies injections horrify her as much as the possibility of the disease. Throughout the novel Sophie continues to claim that she is fine, that there’s no need for a doctor, the cat wasn’t sick, her hand is beginning to feel better.
Suddenly a rock is thrown through the window of their friend’s house, another little piece of one world intruding into the polite complacency of another. Back at home, Sophie answers the phone to a hear nothing but heavy breathing. Later a visitor in the early hours of the morning gives Sophie much more to think about. Gradually we begin to see Otto as a weak and rather mean spirited as we find out about the recent falling out with his long-time friend and business partner Charlie Russel.
Sophie and Otto decide to drive to Long Island, to their beloved summer home, there’s a sense that Sophie in particular is seeking sanctuary. Upon arrival they find their Long Island home has been broken into, vandalised, a decomposing bird in the bath, clothes cut up. At the home of the local family who act as caretakers to the summer homes of city people – they find carelessness and disorder which contrasts sharply with their own world. A world they quickly return to, shaken further out of their complacency.
Paula Fox has created fascinating characters in Sophie and Otto, their marriage is shown to be in a fragile state, even their knowledge of each other not as secure as it might at first appear. That cat bite is however the driver in the novel, it is a symbol of the other world which the Bentwoods are an unwilling part of – but it also creates a fantastic feeling of suspense, underpinned with a shuddering horror that the word rabies always produces. Will Sophie have to face a fortnight of rabies injections? Was the cat sick? Will nothing come of it after all?
Not a word is wasted in this little novel, it packs the kind of punch many short novels do, well written and very compelling, it’s great to see this novel back in print.