A Servant's Tale

Simon, Undo

Valet girl A SERVANT'S TALE Paula Fox North Point Press, $16.50. 320 pp. Linda Simon SERVANTS know their masters' secrets. From their posts upstairs, downstairs, backstairs, they have...

...In New York, the family moves from tenement to-tenement, taking in boarders so that they can manage to pay their rent...
...a homosexual antique dealer, whose gentleness wins Luisa's affection all are deftly etched, palpable characters with desires, dreams, agonies, and fears...
...Justen's "She can't help herself," don't satisfy Luisa...
...Her friend Ellen Dove, a black girl with enormous drive and high aspirations, tries to instill in Luisa a sense of possibility...
...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...
...Yet their essential mystery baffles Luisa and convinces her that she is an outsider...
...She reads Hollywood gossip, stops reading war news...
...She quits school and becomes a live-in maid...
...She cannot assert herself into a world she sees as threatening and alien...
...she must go to college, must free herself from the world of her parents...
...Burgess...
...her tale is a delicately wrought study of the sources of oppression and liberation in our own time...
...She is treated with respect and Commonweal: 22 maintains her dignity and independence...
...She could make something of herself...
...She cannot conceive of existing anywhere but in tiny Malagita...
...In Paula Fox's hands, the Hispanic maid Luisa dc la Cueva emerges as one of the most memorable characters in contemporary fiction...
...Phoebe Burgess's simple "I don't know," and Mrs...
...Gerda Mortimer an aging hippie, and her seductive husband...
...Anonymous, invisible, flics 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...
...To Orlando it appears that Luisa is following in her mother's timid, ineffectual footsteps...
...the eccentric Mrs...
...But Luisa wants to work, to save her money, and to go home...
...But the world remains elusive...
...She is forced to memorize Wordsworth and Emily Dickinson, while she longs for Malagita, the simpler life, her beloved grandmother...
...Even her first employers, the ideologically liberal Millers, think Luisa should do something "better": "You could go to night school, you know," Mr...
...When the revolution threatens to depose the dc 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...
...She must stay in school, she tells her...
...Orlando cannot find a job, then finally shamefully for him becomes a street-sweeper...
...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...
...Fox portrays Luisa's many employers as sympathetically as she does Luisa herself...
...Her barrio, she decides, is just another village, only dirtier and noisier than Malagita...
...Luisa goes to school...
...But Luisa replies coolly, "I'm glad to be working for you...
...But I did hope...
...But Malagita has changed, with a huge plastics factory replacing the sugar mill, and a community that shuts her out...
...As in her previous novels, The Western Coast, Desperate Characters, A Widow's Children, Fox is concerned with the cataclysmic moments of private lives, and the quiet desperation of ordinary people...
...What are you doing with my son," she implores Mrs...
...Her choice is a deliberate act...
...At last she feels she has control over her life...
...Fefita can hardly venture out without her daughter...
...Malagita seems frozen in time, with traditions held not so much to affirm a sense of community, as out of fear of change...
...Fefita is horrified...
...I had no reason to hope for more," he tells Luisa...
...The flighty, hard-drinking Phoebe Burgess and her cranky son Brian...
...As a literary device, the perceptive servant is a useful character in the hands of a skilled novelist...
...It made people think something different was going to happen...
...Miller offers...
...A revolution was a pitiful thing," Luisa reflects...
...It is 1936...
...She cannot leam English...
...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...
...she cannot conceive of any existence for herself except that of servant...
...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...
...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...
...Burgess seduces Charlie, Luisa is shattered and uncomphehending...
...For Luisa, work and she sees a life as a servant as decent, honest work is liberating...
...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...
...She is no less isolated from the outside world, no more effective...
...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...
...From their posts upstairs, downstairs, backstairs, they have a privileged view of the privileged classes...
...She tries to understand, reading "signs" in unmade beds and messy bureau drawers...
...When Mrs...
...It seems a place forgotten by the outside world until there begin rumors of political unrest, of an uprising...
...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...

Vol. 112 • January 1985 • No. 1


 
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