Paula Fox | Critical Review by Linda Simon

This literature criticism consists of approximately 21 pages of analysis & critique of Paula Fox.
This section contains 1,026 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Anita Moss

Critical Review by Linda Simon

SOURCE: "Valet Girl," in Commonweal, Vol. XCII, No. 1, January 11, 1985, pp. 22, 24.

In the following review, Simon finds in A Servant's Tale a deftly handled examination of the individual power and purpose of the marginalized under-classes.

Servants know their masters' secrets. From their posts upstairs, downstairs, backstairs, they have a privileged view of the privileged classes. Anonymous, invisible, flies on the wall and the pitcher's ears, they are able to observe a reality closed to the rest of us: private vanities and foibles, hidden trials and unspoken troubles. As a literary device, the perceptive servant is a useful character in the hands of a skilled novelist. In Paula Fox's hands [in A Servant's Tale], the Hispanic maid Luisa de la Cueva emerges as one of the most memorable characters in contemporary fiction; her tale is a delicately wrought study of the sources of oppression and liberation in our own time.

Luisa de la Cueva, illegitimate daughter of the kitchen maid Fefita Sanchez and Orlando de la Cueva, her employer's son and heir, grows up on the tiny Caribbean island of San Pedro, in a village dominated physically by the de la Cuevas' sugar mill, and psychologically by poverty, ignorance, and superstition. Malagita seems frozen in time, with traditions held not so much to affirm a sense of community, as out of fear of change. It seems a place forgotten by the outside world—until there begin rumors of political unrest, of an uprising. "A revolution was a pitiful thing," Luisa reflects. "It made people think something different was going to happen."

When the revolution threatens to depose the de la Cuevas from their lofty state, Luisa's father (who in a moment of passion married his plump, passive Fefita) decides that the three must emigrate to the United States. Fefita is horrified. She cannot conceive of existing anywhere but in tiny Malagita; she cannot conceive of any existence for herself except that of servant.

It is 1936. In New York, the family moves from tenement to tenement, taking in boarders so that they can manage to pay their rent. Fefita can hardly venture out without her daughter. She cannot learn English. She cannot assert herself into a world she sees as threatening and alien. Orlando cannot find a job, then finally—shamefully for him—becomes a street-sweeper. Luisa goes to school.

She is forced to memorize Wordsworth and Emily Dickinson, while she longs for Malagita, the simpler life, her beloved grandmother. Her friend Ellen Dove, a black girl with enormous drive and high aspirations, tries to instill in Luisa a sense of possibility. She must stay in school, she tells her; she must go to college, must free herself from the world of her parents. But Luisa wants to work, to save her money, and to go home.

Her barrio, she decides, is just another village, only dirtier and noisier than Malagita. She is no less isolated from the outside world, no more effective. When America enters the Second World War, Luisa sees soldiers and admits, "I couldn't imagine where they were going, what might happen to them." She reads Hollywood gossip, stops reading war news. She quits school and becomes a live-in maid.

To Orlando it appears that Luisa is following in her mother's timid, ineffectual footsteps. "I had no reason to hope for more," he tells Luisa. "But I did hope." Even her first employers, the ideologically liberal Millers, think Luisa should do something "better": "You could go to night school, you know," Mr. Miller offers. She could make something of herself. But Luisa replies coolly, "I'm glad to be working for you." At last she feels she has control over her life. Her choice is a deliberate act.

For Luisa, work—and she sees a life as a servant as decent, honest work—is liberating. She is treated with respect and maintains her dignity and independence. After her marriage ends (her husband, a magazine editor, tries to make her over according to his own expectations), she patches together several jobs and manages to support herself and her son, Charlie.

And being a servant has another attraction for Luisa: she believes it may enable her to penetrate the mystery of a society that seems unfathomable, a society populated by men and women oppressed by forces within themselves and without, suffering, complicating their lives, and rarely connecting on anything but a superficial level.

Fox portrays Luisa's many employers as sympathetically as she does Luisa herself. The flighty, hard-drinking Phoebe Burgess and her cranky son Brian; the eccentric Mrs. Justen, tireless rescuer of stray animals ("As long as people are cruel to animals, they'll be cruel to each other," she righteously tells Luisa), whose capacity for love excludes her own mother; Gerda Mortimer, an aging hippie, and her seductive husband; a homosexual antique dealer, whose gentleness wins Luisa's affection—all are deftly etched, palpable characters with desires, dreams, agonies, and fears. Yet their essential mystery baffles Luisa and convinces her that she is an outsider. She tries to understand, reading "signs" in unmade beds and messy bureau drawers. But the world remains elusive.

When Mrs. Burgess seduces Charlie, Luisa is shattered and uncomphehending. "What are you doing with my son," she implores Mrs. Burgess. Phoebe Burgess's simple "I don't know," and Mrs. Justen's "She can't help herself," don't satisfy Luisa. She decides she must leave New York, and returns to San Pedro with the "intention that everything in my life would become clear when I set foot in Malagita." But Malagita has changed, with a huge plastics factory replacing the sugar mill, and a community that shuts her out. The child whose intrepid wanderings earned her the nickname "Luisa, la viajera loca"—the mad traveler—has become a woman without a home, a woman forever on the outside looking in.

Luisa's history coincides with large changes in the modern world—one great war and several smaller ones, the depression of the thirties, the civil rights movement, the disaffected sixties—but these are peripheral to Fox's interest: the eternal, pervasive needs of human existence. As in her previous novels, The Western Coast, Desperate Characters, A Widow' Children, Fox is concerned with the cataclysmic moments of private lives, and the quiet desperation of ordinary people.

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This section contains 1,026 words
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Buy the Critical Essay by Anita Moss
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