Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Review: A Start in Life/The Debut

This review of A Start in Life was originally posted by Simon at Savidge Reads on April 7, 2010.

I was looking for something short and sweet to read the other day and after perusing my immediate TBR I was shocked that nothing new seemed to leap out at me (more on that tomorrow). I decided I would have a look at who I read last year and had been meaning to read again and decided on ‘A Start in Life’ by Anita Brookner. I really enjoyed her subtle Man Booker Winner 'Hotel du Lac' and so wondered if her debut novel would have the same success with me.

‘A Start in Life’ is really the tale of Ruth Weiss and as we meet her she seems to be undergoing some sort of mid life crisis all of which she blames on literature in the wonderful opening line. ‘Dr Weiss, at forty, knew her life had been ruined by literature.’ From this point of her realisation of this we are taken back through Ruth’s childhood at Oakwood Court, her schooling days, life in London and Paris and onwards meeting her family friends and lovers along the way to find out why.

There is a plot to the book as it is based on one woman’s life and the experiences she has. However its not plot driven, really it’s a book that through some rather wonderful characters looks at many different themes. For example through George and Helen, Ruth’s parents, you are given the story of both the aging process and some of its perils and marriage as it goes through several decades. Anthea who Ruth meet’s at school illustrates the varying emotions, protectiveness and competitiveness of friendship. Through Ruth’s varying relationships we see differing views of love and their effects on people.

It’s the characters their backgrounds and wit that Brookner gives to them that make this such a joy to read. Ruth’s mother is hilarious and a complete scene stealer which is apt as she is a retired actress. With her looks faded she now spends most of her days in bed with some alcoholic drink and the memories of her fame and beauty. She does venture out of bed now and again, though slightly begrudgingly and always dramatically, and always gives you wonderful lines. One of my favourites was after meeting Anthea and being delightful the whole way through she turns and says ‘she has the soul of an air hostess’ there are many, many to choose from though. In fact one line which made me laugh out loud was about Helen ‘she was feeling much better herself, and allowed an extra sleeping pill as a treat.’

In fact really to show you just how good Brookner is, and remember this was her debut novel, with characters I found a brilliant short description of the Weisses new live-in maid that sums a person up in a paragraph. ‘So they got a woman in, a Mrs Cutler, ‘our darling Maggie’, as Helen instantly called her, a wry, spry widow, quick to take offense. She served meals at unpunctual intervals, so that Ruth always found herself too late or too early, kept the radio on while she worked, and smoked all day.’ Brookner does this with characters quite often or will cause a situation where one line or action defines a character who is new into the story.

I can see why some people say that Brookner should have been writing in the 1930’s because it has that feel and charming appeal. I think this book is actually set between the 1960’s and 1980’s but it could be right now even though it was written in 1981 (it’s aptly called ‘The Debut’ in the US). I am really shocked to discover that many of her books are now out of print because with stories and characters like these they are begging to be discovered. Maybe I should start some kind of Brookner campaign?

If you haven’t read Brookner then I think you should definitely give her a try, I will definitely be reading much more of her work over the coming months as when I was allowed to bookshop, all those months ago, I had a lot of second hand success with Brookner and got lots of books, including this one, for 50p each, a bargain for such a pleasurable read. I am hesitant to say I have found a new favourite author but it mightn’t be far from the truth. Who else has read Brookner and loved her (if you didn’t your not welcome in these parts ha, that’s a joke) what other books of hers should I try and find?

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