This review of The Rules of Engagement was written by Jess at Park Benches & Bookends.
The book is narrated by Elizabeth, a woman born into privilege but a little too late to be part of the woman’s new sexual and liberal freedoms during the decades following the sixties (a fact the reader is constantly reminded of). Elizabeth instead goes down a very traditional 1950s path. She marries a man much older than herself and settles into a moderately happy but passionless marriage, passion is supplied to her from her married lover. When her husband dies she lives a solitude life, never working, never doing anything really aside from going for long walks around London and keeping an eye on her oldest friend Betsy.
Betsy in contrast first lives in Paris involving herself in a passionate affair for many years but when she eventually returns to London her decisions shake up and impact Elizabeth’s life.
Not a huge amount actually happens in this book, all the exciting stuff is going on in Betsy’s life of which we only hear a small portion of from Elizabeth. The writing has a melancholic feel to it as Elizabeth ponders over her situation and the awful people in her life. At first I liked the book as I’m quite happy to read books with little plot. The beginnings of Elizabeth’s marriage along with her bore of a husband lead me to think it was all going to be a bit Madame Bovary and the sad demise of Betsy going from sparkly, innocent, young women in Paris to being sucked into the dreary life of Elizabeth’s London was well done.
But by the end I got very frustrated with Elizabeth. Elizabeth is an observer who does not get involved with anything. Elizabeth ponders over going aboard, taking an evening class, getting a job but never actually even coming close to doing these things. Her excuse is always the ‘well I was born too late as a women to do anything with my life’ this might work over a period of small time but not over several decades. Just like Elizabeth's life, it all became very dull.
In conclusion I can only think that this novel would have worked much better as a novella which the novel would be if Elizabeth’s repetitive ramblings were removed.
Annabel from Gaskella has also recently posted a review of this book in which she says "The Rules of Engagement is one for Brookner completists, first time readers should probably start elsewhere" I think I’ll take her advice and read another Brookner novel before making my mind up completely.