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From England, a Jamesian sensitivity and ambivalence

A Friend from England, by Anita Brookner. New York: Pantheon. 205 pp. $15.95. The safe, sometimes stagnant harbor of middle-class family life and the treacherous high seas of romance are the twin poles of Anita Brookner's fictional world. Trailing melancholy clouds of regret, shame, and nostalgia for their vanished childhoods, the heroines of her novels venture forth in the vain hope of finding a romantic love as secure as family love.

Rachel Kennedy, the narrator of Brookner's seventh novel, claims she is a realist about romantic love. To maintain her composure, she has learned how to compromise: to take love where she can find it in a series of affairs that lead nowhere in particular.

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We are told little more about these affairs: merely that they occur. The focus of the novel is Rachel's attachment to a family not her own, who allow her to become part of their circle. Their very name suggests both stability and stasis: the Livingstones. The epitome of comfortable domesticity, they remind Rachel of a family straight from the pages of Chekhov.

To readers interested in placing them in the context of contemporary English society, they seem to be quiet, well-off London Jews whose families may originally have come from Central Europe, although Brookner never makes this explicit. There's Oscar, the kindly, slightly worried father; his gentle wife, Dorrie; and Heather, their only child, a placid, somewhat spoiled young woman with a ``milk fed'' look, who at 27 is five years younger than Rachel.

Rachel senses the limitations of the Livingstones' sheltered, ``padded,'' indoor world, yet she also wants to partake of its safety and comfort. She envies their simple middle-class morality and finds herself alternately touched by and impatient with their curious innocence and insularity.

The Livingstones are fond of Rachel and vaguely hope that her greater experience of the outside world will enable her to act as a sort of guide to Heather. Rachel allows herself to take on the role of go-between, representing Oscar and Dorrie to their cherished, rather ungrateful daughter, whom Rachel secretly hates and envies, even as she honestly tries to give her the best possible advice.

Rachel watches as Heather, encouraged by her family, sleep-walks into a marriage with a man who looks like the groom on a wedding cake and turns out to be homosexual. She watches as Heather, again supported by her family, backs out as if the marriage had never been.

When Heather plunges into a second engagement on the heels of the first disaster, Rachel follows her to Venice, hoping to dissuade her from marrying a young Italian she's just met.

Rachel is determined to open Heather's eyes to reality. Have an affair with Marco, if you must, she advises, but don't think another ill-conceived marriage will solve your problems.

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Heather prefers to operate with her eyes closed. In the novel's climactic scene, this stolid, dull, unimaginative young woman manages - almost without intending it - to turn the tables on her clever, more ``experienced,'' older ``friend from England.''

Rachel tries to stop Heather's folly in the name of family feeling: How can this girl desert her loving (and at this point ailing) parents to start a life in a foreign country on the basis of a whim? But the Livingstones finally approve the desertion: To them it's only natural that their child will leave home to begin her own family - even in Italy. Rachel is left in the ironic position of valuing the Livingstones' special family life far more than the Livingstones themselves do, which makes her position as perpetual outsider all the more poignant.

This is a subtle, beautifully written, deeply affecting, sometimes even maddening novel. Brookner has often been called Jamesian, but in this novel she not only shows a Jamesian sensitivity to the nuances of her characters' consciences and consciousnesses, but also gives us a worthy successor to the Jamesian figure of the ambivalent ambassador in Rachel, who suffers because she ``knows better'' than those around her. Heather, a fool, rushes in where wiser Rachel fears to tread. And Rachel is left wondering if her own future of prudence as compromise will not be more pitiable after all.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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