"LOOK AT ME." This was the terse, almost naked-sounding title of Anita Brookner's third novel. Nearly 23 years ago, I first encountered Brookner's beautifully modulated and precisely spoken yet strangely urgent voice when I chanced upon this book. The sheer candor and vulnerability of that first-person narrator, the shining clarity with which she related her story: These were the hallmarks of a writer to be reckoned with.
Since then, I've read every one of the novels Brookner has written at the more or less steady rate of one a year. If asked to choose a favorite, I'd put "Look at Me" at or near the top of the list, along with "Hotel du Lac," "Incidents in the Rue Laugier," "Providence," "Brief Lives" and "Fraud." A modern-day descendant of the subtly observant Henry James but blessedly free of his propensity for the Gordian knot sentence, Brookner mines a small, some might say limited, terrain yet manages to extract from it rich insights about the human condition.
A London-born art historian who taught at that city's Courtauld Institute, Brookner made her novelistic debut in her 50s. Now in her eighth decade, she has created an impressive body of work that seems likely to stand the test of time. As often happens when an author has written a substantial number of books, not all are at the same exalted level of accomplishment. Some are more or less bound to fall short of the high expectations one brings to reading a writer this good.
Such is the case with her latest novel, "Leaving Home," a first-person narrative told by a still youngish, if no longer really young, woman who's both eager and reluctant to leave her girlhood home and make a home of her own. Like many another Brookner heroine, Emma Roberts has been living with her widowed mother in a comfortable flat in London. An art history student, she is given the opportunity to go to Paris to pursue her thesis topic: classical French formal gardens. Although Emma is a quiet, well-mannered and considerate young lady, it's hard to summon up much sympathy for her initial complaint, which is that the student dorm is not as cushy as her mother's flat.
Following the advice of her new friend Francoise Desnoyers, a self-assured, outgoing young woman who works at the library, Emma rents a room of her own at a small hotel:
"Gradually I adjusted to my new home, always on the understanding that it was provisional, that somewhere at the end of this process I would accede to a real home, a home of my own, rather more like the one I had left, and to which I had no desire to return."
While in France, Emma is invited to the beautiful country house where Francoise's formidable mother holds court: "My first sight of Francoise's house, L'Ermitage, constituted the first coup de foudre I had ever experienced." Significantly, perhaps, when Emma first falls in love, it's with a house.
But, as Emma later realizes, the price Francoise must pay to keep up this architectural gem in the manner to which it's accustomed is to follow Mme. Desnoyers' game plan and marry for money.
Although Emma, an only child, will inherit her own mother's abode, she has no desire to continue living in it when she returns to London. A home of her own is what she wants. Well-off as she is, she has no trouble buying a nice flat. But, somehow, as she observes to her friend Philip Hudson, a serious, hard-working, middle-aged doctor, she never thinks of it as "home." Philip, as it happens, feels the same way about his house, which hasn't seemed like home since his wife left him, taking half the furniture.
Brookner's handling of her titular theme is weakened by the credulity-straining ease with which her heroine manages to rent and purchase real estate in such pricey locales as Paris and London. A corollary problem is that Emma's obsession and dissatisfaction with her living quarters provoke exasperation. People here seem dwarfed by their houses -- or their longing for homier ones. We never learn as much about the characters as we would like. And neither does Emma, which may be her problem. Brookner is also concerned, of course, with her protagonist's deeply frustrated longing for intimacy, a longing she shares with many of her predecessors. But that theme receives less than Brookner's usual degree of attention. In terms of plot, not much happens, because Emma seems unwilling to explore the people in her world, herself included.
Admittedly, there's an admirable maturity and wisdom in Brookner's evenhanded presentation of the two young women: The tougher, more selfish Francoise is shown to have her sorrows too, and the gentler, softer Emma is shown to be selfish in her own mild way. As in "Brief Lives," we come to see how life's conundrums take their toll on the bashful and brassy alike. But compared with that earlier work, this one is a thinner, more pallid production.
In an odd way, "Leaving Home" is a young woman's book, not in the sense of being ingenuous and hopeful but in the sense that it doesn't incorporate enough of the insight and experience its author has gained over the years and injected into other novels. In place of vulnerability, disappointment and painful revelation, there is only a kind of stoical resignation. *