And that is the exact phrase I'm sticking with. I did not love this novel. It didn't really change my life. Although I will certainly read more Anita Brookner novels in the future, based on my experience of reading this one, I will not be running out to read everything she's written immediately (as I did with someone like, say, Helene Hanff). And there is something fittingly British, and even middle-aged, about the phrasing of "pleased me very much" that seems just right for this book.
It's a slim novel, at 192 pages, and, like its title, it was Brookner's fiction debut (the original British title was A Start in Life, which, here's a surprise considering my unconditional love for all things British, I think I prefer). It can be called an actual story in only the loosest possible sense: Ruth Weiss, looking back on her life from the vantage point of 40, explores how she came to learn that "her life had been ruined by literature."
The question I kept coming back to was, "But had it?" Or its corollary: "Shouldn't life be ashamed of itself, that it couldn't compare a little more favorably to literature?"
Brookner's protagonist Weiss relates her childhood spent loving books, watching the increasingly (but always quietly) volatile marriage between her parents deteriorate, and her young adulthood spent studying the works of Balzac in Paris. Along the way she tries to make friends, take lovers, explore the City of Light, and get out from under the thumbs of her completely selfish and childish parents (and their cook and servant, Mrs. Cutler, who only encourages their worst impulses).
But the story is not the story here. In fact, I can picture many readers, especially those more in tune with the pace of James Patterson and Lee Child-esque thrillers, becoming distinctly annoyed with the lack of action and overall story arc here. (When I worked in a bookstore, ages ago, my lovely boss loved Brookner's similarly languid novel Hotel du Lac, and I remember eavesdropping on his conversation with a friend who thought it was the biggest snoozefest ever.) So what pleased me about this book?
First and foremost, every now and then there is a line in it that sparkles. Absolutely sparkles. With truth and humor and resignation and all my other favorite human attributes. Lines like this, when Ruth asks a potential love interest to a meal at her house and is stressing out about what to cook for him:
She did not realize that most men accept invitations to dinner simply in order to know where the next meal is coming from. Her father, who could have told her this, had not. (p. 55.)Oh, my god, it's brilliant. Centuries of annoying back-and-forth between the male and female sexes and how they do not and never will understand one another, distilled into one depressing sentence that is simultaneously exhilirating because it is steeped in truth. And how the encounter with this man ends is so, so perfect. Again, depressing as hell, and it will make you want to hit the man. But trust me. Those few chapters alone would make the whole book worthwhile, even if the rest of it wasn't.
The other fascinating thing to contemplate is how much of this novel came from life: Brookner herself has never married, and spent many years caring for her aging parents (as does Ruth Weiss). Does Brookner feel her life was ruined by literature? Or, because she didn't start publishing novels until she was in her fifties, does she feel literature reinvigorated her life? I wonder. And the wondering, combined with the fun of actually reading this novel, made this whole experience very satisfying. Anita Brookner's novel pleased me very much.