Memoirs are the occasion for writers to revisit their early lives, the wellsprings of their work, or the struggles of a career before they received acclaim. This year's publication of Paula Fox's Borrowed Finery has brought the Brooklyn-based novelist and children's author a newfound, and long overdue, stardom. But not for the usual reasons. Instead of rediscovering her charms, Fox's new readers are tasting the astringent pleasures of her cool-eyed and unsentimental writing for the first time. With luck they'll press on and savor those same qualities in her novels, which have made her the favorite writer's writer of Walter Kirn, Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Lethem, and Andrea Barrett. From her 1967 debut, Poor George, in which a prep-school teacher decides (disastrously) to tutor, rather than turn in, a delinquent boy, to the 1970 classic Desperate Characters, in which a Brooklyn woman's festering cat bite becomes a metaphor for gentrification and emotional ennui, Fox's slender books have been characterized by a flinty moral clarity and a canny way of using small incidents as levers to pry open space for larger complaints. The idiosyncratic result is an essential -- and essentially New York -- writer.