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A Graceful and Daring Novel About Old Age


Anita Brookner

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Random House

242 pp., $23

Reading a story by English novelist Anita Brookner is like watching someone weave tweed. The movements are small and apparently repetitive, but the cumulative result is subtle and rich.

In "Visitors," her 17th novel, the Booker Prize winner gracefully studies a week in the life of Mrs. Dorothea May, a 70-year-old London widow whose quiet life is interrupted by a young house guest. Dorothea is a woman of such determined stoicism and formality that even the narrator refers to her as Mrs. May. She has avoided joy in her life, "settling instead for reasonable satisfaction."

The novel opens as Mrs. May, a model of quiet decorum, acquiesces to her emotionally manipulative cousin and allows a wedding guest to stay at her flat. "This is the last thing I do for them, she thought incoherently, until she realised that it was also the first. Good sense, momentarily recaptured, told her that this was a routine favour, extended quite naturally by people of a more robust disposition. [She had not] had any contact with the young, whom she saw - common sense momentarily deserting her once again - as dangerously dynamic, like Puck, or Pan, with movement that would shatter the calm of her silent home."

For a woman who spends her days in a vise grip of minute, self-conscious routine, the arrival of Steve, a young American guitar player, proves particularly troublesome. She marshals the courage to ask him to remain outside the drawing room, but then feels burdened to observe the same rule herself as a matter of fairness.

There's comedy here, but this isn't "The Odd Couple." Brookner specializes in the raised eyebrow, not the slapped knee. Steve isn't loud or disruptive. Mrs. May hardly sees him before he heads out each morning to be with his friends. Nevertheless, his aimlessness and insouciance entice Mrs. May from her secure detachment.

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The narrator notes that "fiction taught Mrs. May all she knew of life, taught her to interpret the lives of others." That education has made her a particularly insightful observer of human foibles, her own and others', but it has also imprisoned her in the role of observer. As the wedding approaches, however, and tensions between an ungrateful bride and her needy grandmother threaten to cancel the ceremony, Mrs. May discovers she cannot remain the quiet side character she's perfected.

Though her contributions are modest, she admonishes and cajoles these self-absorbed relatives at precisely the right moments. Her reluctant involvement with them and the brief conversations with Steve over breakfast gradually challenge Mrs. May to reject her sepia dreams and imagine a life of risk and fearlessness.

Brookner writes with Jamesian subtlety, but she retains a love for these characters that keeps them from dissolving under her incisive analysis. She offers a particularly wise portrayal of the exhausting love and disappointment parents can feel toward their adult children.

In a culture of youth, this is a daring novel about the anxieties and alliances of old age which avoids the sentimentality or dread that subject so often receives. Mrs. May realizes wistfully that "those who survived and grew old were in a country without maps." Brookner has given us good directions.

* Ron Charles teaches English at the John Burroughs School in St. Louis.

Second thoughts on taking in a relative

In the midst of these calculations, standing in the middle of the room, the Indian bedspread in her hands, the irony of her position struck her anew. She was about to become a prisoner herself, at the behest of Kitty and her ruthless arrangements. And yet she could not blame Kitty for her own unpreparedness. What did she know of young men? There had been few in her own young years, which had been all duty, uncomplaining duty. She had thought that duty ruled everyone's life, and in her heart of hearts still did. That was why she had acceded to Kitty's request, seeing her own idleness as a refuge from the world and therefore of no value. She viewed herself as this young man might view her, as something worthless. He would be in favour of social justice, as all the young were, would think her an example of undeserving privilege. Therefore she must be prudent, less authoritative than she would like to be.

- From 'Visitors'

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