Every memoir, no matter where its author chooses to break off her auto-narration (walking out of the marriage, entering the gates of the college, gazing into the promising future from some hard-won higher ground), has an implicit as well as an explicit ending: I survived and surmounted all this to become the person who could write this book, turn strife and struggle into order and art. The book's very existence becomes a token of transcendence and projects an idea of the author as a meta-presence, a figure both implicated in and yet detached from the character portrayed in the narrative. A real imagined person if you will, and one who piques our curiosity as to how they "turned out," since we feel we "know" their younger self so well.

Despite more than her fair share of vicissitudes, Paula Fox has turned out just fine, thank you. Her Borrowed Finery, a precise, elegant, yet truly heartwrenching account of a young life filled with far too much disorder and early sorrow, comes at a crucial and near-perfect moment in her career. Thanks to a coterie of passionate admirers and a program of trade paperback reissues by W.W. Norton, she and her novels have emerged quite startlingly from the twilight to which so many "distinguished" literary careers are consigned. She's this year's Dawn Powell–and she's even alive to enjoy it. Both the literary bluebloods (Andrea Barrett, Shirley Hazzard, Frederick Busch, a New York Intellectual trifecta of Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin and Lionel Trilling) and youngbloods (David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Lethem, Walter Kirn and especially the newly lionized Jonathan Franzen) have signed on at one time or another as her advocates, a rather startlingly diverse group of boosters. Here is an instance where the generally Brownian motion of literary life has, through some happy accident, shifted into Darwinian mode, insuring the survival of the aesthetically fittest. How this happened makes for an interesting tale.

As he doubtless would have explained on the Oprah Winfrey show had he made it there, several years back Jonathan Franzen was mired in the slough of despond–a failed marriage, a commercially unsuccessful second novel, a despair that serious fiction could say anything to or do anything for an American culture of sensation rather than thought. In this dry season he stumbled upon Paula Fox's second novel, Desperate Characters, and was saved. It renders in pitiless detail three miserable days in the lives of Sophie and Otto Bentwood, cultured inhabitants of Fun City circa 1969, trapped in a marriage and a city both in the final stages of collapse. The Bentwoods, the crooked timber of humanity that their name implies, are equal neither to the challenges of a progressively decaying civilization (remember muggings?) nor to their own spousal failings. It's a tour de force of marital unhappiness and a soul-shivering portrait of the intellectual class at its lowest ebb–late Auden in prose. That such a book should be the occasion not for suicidal musings but, by Franzen's own testimony, the rebirth of his faith in the whole literary enterprise, is proof of the inscrutable nature of the novelist's psychology. That a novel of the strictest social realism, with nary a fillip or a frill, should inspire such cult devotion among the high IQ/postpomo set is equally perplexing, but it probably has something to do with the law of contraries. In the event, Franzen and Company's enthusiasm for Desperate Characters inspired a paperback republication, followed in due course by reissues of four other novels: Poor George, a 1960s urban black comedy; The Western Coast, an expansive novel of California in the 1930s; The Widow's Children, a family novel of Spanish-Cuban immigrants to New York tearing themselves to pieces; and A Servant's Tale, a portrait of a Hispanic maid rendered in the spirit of "A Simple Heart." Then journalistic lightning struck in the form of an admiring profile of Paula Fox in The New York Times Magazine, setting the stage for Borrowed Finery in a manner guaranteed to gladden her publisher's heart.

Paula Fox has done her part in this scenario of late-stage career rebirth by writing the most well-wrought work of early privation and family payback since Memories of a Catholic Girlhood–if there's a hell and it's properly arranged, Mary McCarthy's Uncle Myers and Fox's feckless parents are tormenting each other there right now. Many readers will also be reminded of the dual masterpieces of the contemporary American memoir, The Liars' Club (serious mother problems) and Angela's Ashes (piercing shortage of material and emotional necessities). Paula Fox's style is neither hotwired like Mary Karr's nor relentlessly charming like Frank McCourt's, but rather calm and measured–and all the more effective for that. The score-settling, I hasten to add, is hardly Fox's intent but rather the collateral result of her clear-eyed vision of herself as a child at the mercy of a vast adult carelessness; she renders, but it is the reader who judges.

Constructed as an often discontinuous series of vignettes, episodes and interludes, Borrowed Finery stands as eloquent proof of the virtue of a memoirist's biding her time (Fox is 78). Its effect is of things recalled at a distance for their import but purified by the passage of the years, leached of anger and terror but not of meaning and impact. Rarely has dispassion packed a stronger emotional wallop.

The particulars of Fox's peripatetic journey through childhood and adolescence make you want to call the child welfare authorities. Her parents were a dissolute, seedily soigné couple utterly unsuited to reproduction. Her father, Paul Fox, was a writer who shuttled between the East and West Coasts, Europe and the States, with at least enough talent to have had Maxwell Perkins as an editor and to have scripted Graham Greene's most loathed movie, Last Train to Madrid. Her mother, Elsie, was a beauty of Cuban background who contracted an inexplicable hatred of her first and (thank God) only daughter at birth. It is Elsie who is the demonic center of the book, the never-answered question. Fox puts it with typically chilling clarity: "For years I assumed responsibility for all that happened in my life, even for events over which I had not the slightest control. It was not out of generosity of mind or spirit that I did so. It was a hopeless wish that I would discover why my birth and my existence were so calamitous for my mother."

Left in a foundling home immediately after her birth, Fox by good fortune "land[s] in the hands of rescuers, a fire brigade that passed me along from person to person until I was safe." The trail leads to early childhood years spent in upstate New York, in the aptly named town of Balmville, in the gentle care of a Congregationalist minister she calls Uncle Elwood. He is a character whose real, surpassing goodness is made manifest as Fox follows him on his pastoral rounds and in his loving ways with her–a quietly noble soul whom she adored: "I would have been one of those children found in the wilderness written about in case histories if it had not been for Uncle Elwood," she writes. "I learned civility and kindness from him." This threadbare rural idyll is interrupted at irregular intervals and finally shattered by her father's visits, dragging her back into her parents' unstable lives–"their arrangements, as far as I could work out, were permanently temporary." New York, Provincetown, Hollywood, the Adirondacks, Northern California, Florida–the only fixed point is the dependability with which Fox will be subjected to instances of callousness and emotional cruelty impossible, for this reader at least, to comprehend or forgive. A glass of ice water flung in her face by her mother, in the grip of some mysterious anger. A room-service meal of lamb chops and peas dropped summarily by her father down an airshaft after she remarks innocently about the absence of milk. A terrifying, rage-filled drive by her mother at breakneck speed in the Malibu hills to punish her for complaining of a toothache. "I'll fix that for you," Elsie announces calmly as she places her daughter in the rumble seat. "Through the back window," Fox writes, "I saw how rigidly she held her back, how stiff her neck was, as she drove like the wind and I was shaken like a rattle." All this and more is rendered from the heartbreakingly convincing perspective of a young girl with no yardstick marked "normal" to measure these deviations from ordinary human behavior. And yet Paula Fox, in her unformed way, clearly loved her father, even as she began to grasp his weakness, self-importance and alcoholic self-pity. So well is the stoic worldview of the child inhabited that it will be no mystery to readers why Fox has had a distinguished parallel career as a novelist for young adults.

Among the most exotic and strikingly well-rendered episodes in the book is Fox's time in Cuba with her grandmother, who serves as a companion for her rich sugarcane-plantation-owning cousin, whose "eyebrows were like black caterpillars that had come to a halt on her forehead." The two of them travel south from New York on Tía Luisa's own private railroad car, their luggage handed over to an elderly British butler of exquisite condescension. ("I thought to myself that Prince's smile was a sign that he forgave us for being poor.") Left, as usual, to her own devices–"There was no one who said my name for hours at a time"–she wanders about the elaborate gardens, is watched over by the servant staff and goes to school with the children of the cane cutters. The kitchen of her teacher, Señora García, becomes her refuge and her place to meet other children, her entree into the wider life of Olmiguero: "I had begun to belong to the plantation but not to the people in the grand house–who had not, in any case, asked for me." In short, it becomes for a time Balmville South. This period is ended by the Cuban revolution of 1933, which drives Fox and her grandmother back to Queens, but it offers a tantalizing experience of otherness that has served her well in her fiction, particularly in A Servant's Tale and The Widow's Children.

Fox recounts the balance of her rocky coming-of-age–her parents' divorce and remarriages, her education at a finishing school in Montreal and at the Juilliard School of Music, her brief and disastrous marriage to an older actor (interestingly alike in this respect to Mary McCarthy), her string of odd jobs in Los Angeles (painting ceramics, teaching dancing at Arthur Murray, sorting rivets, reading South American novels for Warner Brothers)–in similar style, with a unity achieved more by style and sensibility than by narrative design. There are, curiously, a number of intriguing Hollywood walk-ons, including Orson Welles, John Barrymore, F. Scott Fitzgerald (passed out drunk), Stella Adler and a "very young and handsome and thin" John Wayne, with whom she dances at a Mexican nightclub. The book ends with a two-pronged coda: a visit with her dying 92-year-old mother on Nantucket, at which the only emotion stirred is the old revulsion ("I had lost out on a daughter's last privilege, I couldn't mourn my mother"); and a successful reunion with a daughter she'd given up for adoption decades before. And so this sobering book ends on a lovely grace note: "What I had missed all the years of my life, up to the time when Linda and I met, was freedom of a certain kind: to speak without fear to a woman in my family."

If Borrowed Finery were simply the triumph of careful craft and flawlessly controlled prose that it certainly is, it would still rank as one of the most impressive books of the year. But it offers its readers something even more valuable: an inspiriting embodiment of courage, integrity and, to use an old-fashioned word, character. There is a particular sort of toughness of mind to be found in American women writers–Flannery O'Connor and Dawn Powell had it–and its finest living avatar is now clearly Paula Fox. We should have known this much earlier, but there is plenty of opportunity now to make up for lost time.