Desperate Characters (novel)

Desperate Characters is a 1970 novel by Paula Fox.

Desperate Characters
Paperback edition, 1999
AuthorPaula Fox
CountryUnited States
PublisherW. W. Norton & Company
Publication date
1970 (reprinted 1999)
Media typePrint (paperback) and ebook
Pages190 pp (paperback)


Sophie and Otto Bentwood are a middle-aged, middle class, childless Brooklyn Heights couple trapped in a loveless marriage. He is an attorney, she a translator of books. Their existence is affected not only by their disintegrating relationship but by the threats of urban crime and vandalism that surround them everywhere they turn, leaving them feeling paranoid, scared, and desperately helpless. The novel details their fragile emotional and psychological states as they interact with each other and their friends.

Critical reception

The novel received generally good reviews both upon its release and in subsequent printings. Irving Howe, in his afterword to the 1980 reissue, placed it within "a major American tradition, the line of the short novel exemplified by Billy Budd, The Great Gatsby, Miss Lonelyhearts and Seize the Day": a tradition in which "everything—action, form, language—is fiercely compressed, and often enough, dark-grained as well."[1] It fell out of print until it was republished in 1999.[2] In the preface to the new edition, Jonathan Franzen called it the greatest realist novel of the postwar era.

Adaptations in other media

The book was made into a movie starring Shirley MacLaine in 1971.


  1. Barrett, Andrea (1999). "The Old Beasts: On The Widow's Children". In Fox, Paula (ed.). The Widow's Children. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. ISBN 978-0-393-31963-7.
  2. O’Hehir, Andrew (1999-06-16), "Desperate Characters: A brilliant, cheerless little classic from 1970, long out of print, resurfaces", Salon.
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