- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 31, 2005

LEAVING HOME

By Anita Brookner

Random House, $23.95, 212 pages

REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN

Anita Brookner’s fiction — like that smokiest of China teas, Lapsang Souchong, which people famously either love or hate — seems to call forth extreme responses in her readers. What’s not to like, you might think? A delicate sensibility, a general air of refinement and culture, an emollient tone, carefully-wrought prose: All these are the hallmarks of a Brookner novel.

Part of the divide is along gender lines. Although Ms. Brookner’s fiction is not what people now vulgarly refer to as “chick lit,” there can be little doubt that it has proved to have more appeal to female readers. Yet I take a backseat to no one as a fan of hers: Reading her books has given me a uniquely intense pleasure over the past quarter of a century; the appearance of each of her novels has been a cause for keen anticipation and, almost always, they have more than come up to my high expectations.

I once wrote that reading her prose fiction was like feeling a cool stream run across one’s body on a warm day and I confess that passages like this, from her new novel, “Leaving Home,” can still have that effect on me:

“That night I had a dream of bliss so rare that I knew it was unconnected to anything I had ever experienced. The details immediately escaped me when I woke, but I knew, simply and conclusively, that I was loved. I was left with an impression of golden light, but this light had nothing supernatural about it, almost the opposite; it was the light of the sun in mid-heaven. What this dream signified was unclear… . In the light of this dream I dismissed my customary timid pleasures and realized that something else was called for. Yet there was no sign of this, or what it was to be. It simply put into place the mild diversions of the weekend, which I now saw were emanations, echoes of other lives, and not of my own.”

There is seldom a problem with Anita Brookner’s actual prose. She is always a marvelous writer, word by word, line by line, page after wonderful page. Where she can occasionally let you down is as a novelist: What she chooses to write about, how she structures her plot, how she resolves the situations she has created. Occasionally, she has stumbled, as in her early novel, “Family and Friends,” by trying to escape the golden girdle of what in a lesser author might have been called her formula. There, a laudable desire to step outside her customary framework seems to have led her into a mode less suited to her particular talents.

“Leaving Home,” Ms. Brookner’s 23rd novel in 25 years, is problematic even to this most diehard of admirers, but for entirely different reasons from those which engendered a cooler than usual response to “Family and Friends.” Her most recent foray into fiction, far from being a misguided venture into territory alien to her talents, is a quintessentially Brooknerian novel, complete with a self-conscious and timorous yet bold heroine who could have been created by no one else, escaping one gilded cage into a succession of others.

All of it is told thoughtfully and analytically, with just a touch of defensiveness amid a steely certitude of self-justification and an absolute determination not to abandon the particular categories and slots peculiar to the heroine. It is, in short, what the British like to call in homage to a surely by now outdated pharmaceutical cliche, the mixture as before.

And yet and yet. It’s all there, everything you expect from Ms. Brookner, only the brew this time is thin, more meager than anything in her earlier books. Indeed, I revisited her first novel, “The Debut” (published in England as “A Start in Life”), hoping that Ms. Brookner’s latest effort might have been similar to her apprentice work in a text I remembered as being less accomplished than the books that soon followed it. But compared to “Leaving Home,” “The Debut” is rich, vibrant, colorful: full of vim and vigor. And the dilemma of the debut novel’s protagonist is a more difficult, hard-won affair than the emergence of “Leaving Home’s” Emma Roberts from the depressing milieu of her widowed mother’s menage into a series of rooms of her own.

For if the virtue of Ms. Brookner’s women was generally of a rather cloistered, rarefied variety, in this latest novel, it even more clearly lacks positive strengths. Cocooned from any kind of monetary troubles, Emma Roberts is the kind of person who goes to Harrods when she wants to shop and buys an apartment for cash by writing a check on the spot for what she considers an astronomical sum.

“I have never been able to solve the mystery of other people’s money,” avers Emma, but the reader might well feel the same way about her. Emma’s mother has “left her a surprising amount of money,” but quite what this means, even in the world of Ms. Brookner’s fiction where it is not uncommon for people to have the odd Swiss bank account lying around, is unclear.

And this oddness washes over into the matter of just when this novel takes place, always a bit of a problem where this author is concerned. You are supposed to believe from internal references that “Leaving Home” happens in something approaching the present time, but just how surprisingly much money would you have to be left to keep a hotel room going for months in even a modest Paris hotel, while also making the kind of purchases Emma does in London? As can often happen with Ms. Brookner, you feel that the circumstances of an earlier time are being uncomfortably transposed into a supposed present, with unsettling results for the reader if not the protagonist.

A general sense of exhaustion pervades this novel, and although the heroine is not exactly what you’d call dynamic, it’s the author’s fatigue that’s to blame. Quite apart from anemic conceptions and systemic weaknesses, there are too many loose threads: Why, for instance, make such a big deal of Emma’s mother’s two friends at the beginning of the novel, when they turn out to have no relevance to plot or character development? Why have Emma experience an extraordinarily powerful epiphany at seeing the naked body of a beautiful young man asleep, when this has no bearing on her future feelings or actions?

And then there are sloppinesses that are lamentable in a writer and inexcusable in either of the editors (British and American) who — presumably anyway — edited her manuscript for publication. Why would Emma pass through Paris on her way to an exchange between her London school and one in the German city of Cologne? It’s so out of the way as to call for some sort of explanation. And why would a character who parted from Emma by saying “A demain” — till tomorrow — be said not to be expecting to see her the next day? Little things admittedly, but also not what you would have found in Ms. Brookner’s previous novels.

I certainly know that “Leaving Home” is not the Brookner novel you would recommend to someone who wanted to know what her fiction was like. Even though it contains all her characteristic elements, the etiolated brew they have been boiled down into would not be a palatable form in which to experience this writer’s essence. The harder question is whether I would recommend it to my fellow Brookner lovers. In some ways, I wish she had not published “Leaving Home” — at least in this form — so that my overall judgment of her oeuvre did not have to be marked by my memories of it.

Against this — necessarily, I believe — harsh judgment, I would put the genuine pleasure derived from reading some beautiful passages of writing in it. But my appreciation of the Brooknerian dynamics and dilemmas has been diminished by the pallid version served up here and this has made reading the book on the whole a dispiriting experience for me, as I cannot help thinking writing it must have been for this prodigiously accomplished and self-aware writer.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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