After reading Colson Whitehead’s dazzling, sweeping novel The Underground Railroad, I was in the mood for something smaller and more intimate. I have it in the back of my mind (but not on my stated reading goals for the year) to read some of the books I already own. So I reached for Anita Brookner’s A Friend From England, which I purchased last year at a used bookstore for $.75. (What a steal!)
It was a good choice. Anita Brookner (who passed away last year, sadly) is a British author I discovered about nine years ago at the recommendation of a friend. I have read nine of her novels including this one, and I consider her to be among my favorite authors, but she’s definitely an acquired taste. Her novels (the ones I’ve read anyway) often follow a pattern. There’s the main character, often a single woman, who is independent, quiet, solitary. She is thrust into contact with a person or group of people wholly unlike her – gregarious, loud, or with family entanglements, for instance – and the growing relationship forces her to reconsider her life. It’s not always a happy comparison, and I’ve finished more than one of her novels kind of bummed out. Yet I can’t stop reading her!
First of all, she’s just a phenomenal writer. Her language is so precise, so thoughtfully rendered, it’s just a joy to read. Second, she burrows so deep into the minds of her characters that it leaves me with a pleasurable claustrophobia that I sometimes crave in my reading. I want to know the characters, I want to try to understand them even when they can’t seem to understand themselves. I want to feel that their thoughts and motivations ring true, and Brookner knows how to convey that. And third, these books are quiet books about ordinary people and the workings of modern relationships. They are not epic in scope save the scope of the human heart and its yearning for connection.
So I haven’t actually written anything about this particular book, have I? Well, essentially the plot is this: Rachel, a single 30-something London bookstore co-owner, orphaned at a young age, is swept into the fold of a wealthy family and asked to be their daughter’s mentor/friend. Heather, the inscrutable spoiled only daughter, makes a disastrous marriage and complications ensue for the entire family. See? Not much there plot-wise, really. But Rachel’s ordered, quiet life is completely upset by Heather’s refusal to accept her advice on how to live as an independent woman. Rachel is forced to look at her own life and question her choices.
“Some of us have to work,” I said. “Stay buoyant. Stay purposeful. Stay smiling, and helpful, and solvent. People like us are braver than people like you will ever be. And, frankly, I think I am light years ahead of you. I know what I need, to be all these things, and clear-headed, and useful. Women don’t sit at home anymore, you know, dreaming of Prince Charming. They don’t do it because they’ve found out that he doesn’t exist. As you should have found out. I live in the real world, the world of deceptions. You live in the world of illusions. That is one of the differences between us. Another one is that I don’t choose to go public every five minutes. What I do is my own affair and nobody else’s. Of course it’s terrible,” I said with some passion. “But you see, I’ve found out that there are no easy options.”
This wasn’t my favorite of the Brookner novels I’ve read. It was a bit too much of a slow burn, only truly coming alive in the last third. And the reason that Heather’s marriage falls apart is weirdly jarring. But I liked it, and it provided just the type of reading experience I wanted, a quiet, slightly melancholy character study. If you’re curious about Ms. Brookner’s books and want to know where to begin, I’d start with either Look At Me, Hotel Du Lac (for which she won the Man-Booker Prize) or Incidents in the Rue Laugier.
Have you read anything by Anita Brookner before? Do you enjoy quiet, character-driven novels or are you more of a plot-driven reader? Do you read an author regularly who kinds of bums you out, but you can’t stop reading them? (Okay, maybe that’s just me, ha ha!) Tell me in the comments.