Sunday, May 17, 2015
Review: A Friend from England
I feel like I should be an expert on A Friend from England. Not only did I just finish re-reading the novel, but I also listened to the audio version after that. The process of re-reading allowed me to reacquaint myself with the plot and, being a re-read, I was able to focus on details I missed the first time around. With the plot still fresh in my mind, following that up with the audiobook was pretty enlightening. Listening to the book each day--without having to read the words myself--really allowed me to think about the characters and what motivated them. It also had me thinking about what kind of people they really were and whether or not I have known anyone like them in my own life.
Thirty-something Rachel, her parents both dead, has been befriended by her father's (and now her own) accountant Oscar Livingstone and his wife Dorrie. Rachel enjoys being a part of their family circle even if she is somewhat ambivalent, at least at first, about their daughter Heather. Although just a few years younger than Rachel, Heather is not someone with whom Rachel finds much in common. Rachel sees Heather as cosseted and helpless. She runs a dress shop her parents bought for her and she seems to Rachel to be naive and ill-equipped to deal with the adult world.
Rachel also runs a shop (a bookshop no less) but considers herself to be the opposite of Heather in just about every way. Lacking parents or any other relatives on whom she can rely, Rachel considers herself far more worldly and capable than Heather, and she resents the way in which Oscar and Dorrie have her on such a high pedestal. Part of me thinks that Rachel's problem with Heather has less to do with a dislike of Heather and more to do with feelings of envy that she is not the focus of Heather's parents' attention.
On top of this, we are led to believe that Rachel, unlike Heather, has an extremely varied and busy sex life. Brookner never specifies what Rachel gets up to at night but she makes repeated references to activity that had me wondering if Rachel turned tricks in the seedier parts of town. I don't think that is really the case but it is clear that she has multiple sexual partners and prides herself on never getting close to any of them. Not surprisingly, Heather's approach to love and relationships is the opposite, and that, to Rachel, is further proof of Heather's naive view of the world.
Once the characters have been introduced and Rachel's emotional and psychological workings have been laid out, the novel moves us through a few crises that don't directly involve Rachel yet they seem to consume her mental capacity. Aside from buying out a partner in her bookshop and buying her flat, Brookner never really lets us into Rachel's world except as it intersects with that of the Livingstone's. Rachel turns out to be the eponymous friend from England and that seems to explain a lot. Despite her social, sexual, and business independence, it seems that in the end the only way Brookner allows Rachel to be defined is as someone's friend. Rather than having her own identity and being someone that people recognize as an individual, she is seen as an appurtenance to the lives of others, and an inconsequential one at that.
One side note I found interesting, there are two gay characters in the book, one incidental and the other of specific importance to the plot. As with many things, Brookner never comes out and says it. It is just implied almost as if it were happening off-stage, like Rachel's sex life. The only reason I bring it up is that the cultural signifiers Brookner uses to let us know they are gay are so painfully indicative of a time that is not that long ago but might as well be light years in the past. We learn that one character is gay not just because he is in what is almost imperceptibly implied to be a gay pub, but because he is wearing eye shadow. This seems a bit of a throwback even for 1987. The only thing missing is a limp wrist and a lisp. Oh, I take it back, I do believe at one point Brookner references the sibilance of the gay character's speech. So glad that this depiction now seems as old fashioned as it does. Changes over the past 28 years have, in most circles, annihilated the attitudes that helped promulgate Thatcher's notoriously anti-gay Clause 28. And good riddance.