13 February 2019

A Friend from England by Anita Brookner

At BMV Books on Bloor Street in Toronto, the shelf that houses copies of Brookner's books usually overflows with them.  It's a combination of copies being sold on once they've served their purpose for nearby university students, and remainders.  Quite often, if my tote isn't too heavy, I'll choose one to add to my collection.  Brookner has never quite sparked an obsession for me, the way Elizabeth Bowen or Virginia Woolf did, but A Friend from England has changed all that.  It`s a brilliant read!

Rachel is in her early thirties, part-owner of a bookshop in Notting Hill, and lives in a flat above the shop.  Oscar Livingstone looks over the books for Rachel, just as he used to do for her father.  Rachel`s family is largely in the past, so it is Oscar and his wife Dorrie that she connects with in terms of responsibility and commitment.  Brookner draws the most incredible scene of a middle-aged couple, recently come into money, with down-to-earth sensibilities living in Wimbledon and surrounded with the gawdy trappings of the noveau riche of what feels like the 60s or 70s.

`I thought of listless Saturday afternoons, when I pictured Oscar relaxing in one of the turquoise silk-covered bergères, with footstools to match.  I thought of Dorrie taking a nap in her shell-pink bedroom with the extravagant expanses of white shag-pile carpet.`

As an independent woman, seemingly wise in the way of the world, Oscar and Dorrie see Rachel as the perfect friend for their daughter, Heather.  The Livingstones are concerned that Heather is far too quiet, a character trait that could impinge on their plan to see their daughter married and mother to their grandchildren.

Just as I was being lulled into a lovely domestic setting, chock full of the niceties with peripheral clucking aunts, a darker picture of Rachel emerged.  My first clue should have been the first-person narrative.  Another penny dropped when Rachel mentioned her `women friends` several times in passing but we never find out their names or any details of their interactions.  Indeed, I was left wondering if these people even existed in Rachel`s mysterious world with its deficit of meaningful contact with others.

There`s more than meets the eye where Heather Livingstone is concerned.  She does meet someone she consents to marry but it all happens in the blink of an eye.  It`s obvious that something doesn`t seem quite right.  Rachel sees a look on Oscar`s face, every now and then, that reflects her niggling fear.  And then Dorrie needs surgery for a lump on her ear.  Now surgery is never a laughing matter but despite everyone`s concern I was astounded by the menu....Duck a l`orange and Sole Parisiennes.  A private clinic, no doubt.

In a situation where firm lines are drawn about who is family, and who is not, Rachel is on the outside looking in.  Not that this necessarily stops her from ingratiating herself.  The relentless way in which Rachel corners Heather to impart her theory regarding certain pitfalls is disconcerting.  There were times when I felt that Rachel made a valid point, she just didn`t know when to stop. 
What could be driving her?  Is it envy, an off the scale moral compass, something darker or something sad? 

A Friend from England would make an excellent book club read.  Peeling back the layers of Rachel`s personality, examining Heather`s relationship with her parents, Rachel, and the men in her life, as well as Brookner`s depiction of married versus single women would easily fill an evening.  And if you`re a fan of feeling slightly unsettled within the safe confines of a good story, this is the book for you!  I loved it.

Lucien Freud`s portrait of his daughter, Bella.
1981

12 comments:

  1. I would read anything with "peripheral clucking aunts," since I am one, but in all seriousness it has been too long since I read Antia Brookner and this is one that I missed. Thanks for the review!

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    1. It's a gripping read, Audrey! Brookner wrote Rachel's character with such insight that I wondered if she wasn't revealing quite a lot about herself. Hope a copy crosses your path one day!

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  2. I own every one of Brookner's novels and have read some twice. They have always fascinated me. And you have set me off thinking of reading some of them again. I have never known any other writer who could say so much in such few words. Her prose is exquisite. Some critics complain that her world is too narrow and out of touch but I Don't see it that way. As she said: “I’m not very popular because they’re bleak and they’re mournful and all the rest of it and I get censorious reviews. But I’m only writing fiction. I’m not making munitions, so I think it’s acceptable.”

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    1. I loved the quote, jaywalker, thanks for sharing it. It shows just how wicked a sense of humour Brookner had! If you stop by here again, please share your favourite title(s) so I'll know which ones to seek out next.

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  3. I started reading Anita Brookner's books from the library when I was very young and so I feel a stronger attachment to her than Elizabeth Bowen or Virginia Woolf, even though my head tells me that they were greater writers. I'm so pleased you liked this one, as I've been thinking about collecting copies of my own to revisit.

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    1. Ooh, Brookner's novels would be a great education into the human psyche, Jane. Well, you don't say how young you were but I'm suddenly feeling my time spent wanting to have a bedroom in the loft like Laura Ingalls was wasted. I could have been learning how to suss out people with questionable motives! Joking aside, I'll be clearing some space on my shelves for more Brookner.

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    2. It's hard to recommend one over another but perhaps Bay of Angels and Rules of Engagement.

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    3. Thanks, jaywalker! I haven't read either of these...and thing I have Rules of Engagement on my shelves. Have a lovely day!

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  4. I am not excited about revisting Brookner, sadly, but I love that I have been to the bookshop you mention!

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    1. Hi Simon! It's nice to be able to do that, isn't it. Your favourite shop in that area closed its doors on Dec. 31. The University owned the land Ten Editions was on and after a long battle with local residents, the owner waved the white flag. At the end, everything was free. You're pupils just dilated at the thought, didn't they!

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  5. Still haven't read beyond Hotel du Lac, but I loved that novel so I'm inspired to read this one.

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  6. And I have yet to read Hotel du Lac. It must be good because I've yet to find a copy at second-hand shops, Nicola. Thanks for letting me know you really enjoyed it...we're off to a library book sale tomorrow and you just never know!

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