by Anita Brookner
One Is the Loneliest Number
A review by Ron Charles
Some books are so wonderful that they give us the added pleasure of pressing them
into friends' hands and insisting they read them, too. Sadly, the devoted fans
of Anita Brookner's flawless novels don't know that pleasure. What, after all,
would we say? "This story about inconsolable loneliness made me think of
you -- enjoy!" She's published a novel almost every year since 1981, but
the range of her audience seems as restricted as her themes. With Henry David
Thoreau, she might wryly observe, "I have traveled much in Concord,"
having explored the whole universe in the narrow confines of a reserved, lonely
Leaving Home, her new novel, does nothing to expand that realm, but
those of us who love the exquisite agony of her scrutiny wouldn't have it any
other way. This time around, her depressed but carefully behaved heroine is
Emma Roberts, a graduate student listlessly working on a dissertation about
17th-century European gardens. Like so many despondent graduate students, she
spends her days tinkering "with footnotes in an attempt to convince myself
that this was a useful activity." At 26, Emma still lives at home with
her mother, doesn't know what she's going to do with her life and has no promising
Yes, in one sense, this is just another slacker novel -- which is weirdly hip
from the 77-year-old retired art professor, but Brookner's style is so elegant
and her plotting so sophisticated that you might as well call "The Turn
of the Screw" just another ghost story. Besides, her protagonists never
indulge in the kind of ironic self-pity that marks the slacker novel, and, despite
suffering from depression so radiant that they could star in Prozac commercials,
they never perceive themselves as depressed. That alone may be what gives her
novels such a strange, timeless quality: They're full of sad people who have
remained somehow oblivious to the age of therapy or psychotropics.
At the start of Leaving Home, Emma Roberts knows that she must break
away from her mother or she will be "doomed to follow" her into a
life of undisturbed stillness and solitude. It's not that Emma doesn't love
her mother, a perfectly pleasant if colorless woman who encourages her daughter
and makes no claims on her time or affection. But Emma is certain that "leaving
home had become a necessity, although a painful one, if ever I were to find
freedom." Her graduate work provides a perfectly respectable opportunity
to escape, although 17th-century gardens seem a very short distance from what
she wants to leave behind: "It was the classical code -- reticence, sobriety,
order -- that attracted me, and I thought it would be valuable to see these
qualities laid out in observable form."
She finally manages to work up the will to travel to Paris, but the soil of
her mind is so dry that no wild oats can germinate. "It seemed that there
was nowhere to go, and I felt as if I were in the sort of prison in which natural
boundaries were observed but not indulged. I spent the rest of the day wondering
how soon I could leave. This was far from the emancipation I had promised myself,
and it was with a feeling of despair, which has stayed with me to this day,
that I realized that I had embarked on a course of action which was in fact
too difficult for me."
Brookner turns that regret a thousand different ways over the pages of this
short, strangely effective novel. When her mother dies suddenly, the conditions
seem ripe to finally push Emma from the nest, but the loss only increases her
sense of displacement, not freedom, as she wanders back and forth between London
and Paris, feeling at home nowhere. "Here was exile," she says, "but
perhaps reality, a reality with which I should have to come to terms."
Desperate for companionship, she allows herself to become a kind of prop in
a bossy friend's conflict with her own mother, and she pursues only the most
inert men who won't violate the sense of isolation she claims to abhor. There's
humor here, even social comedy -- Emma's futile search for an appropriate dress
reads like Henry James channeling Bridget Jones -- but Brookner's wit is so
brittle that it's surprising the pages don't shatter when turned.
All of these activities, fragmentary and brief, are just eddies in the relentless
flow of Emma's introspection as she realizes, "I was now condemned to adulthood."
Nothing can explain the attraction of this almost plotless novel except the
extraordinary precision of Brookner's analysis -- her ability, again and again,
to capture our common but private anxieties in a painful demonstration of self-reliance:
"My longings were those of an adolescent," Emma says, "to be
taken care of, to be nurtured, to be loved. All this I managed to conceal, as
one should. It is an error to confess such needs." But it's a wonder to
expose them with such cutting clarity.
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