About ten years ago I read Anita Brookner’s Booker Prize-winning novel Hotel du Lac. I remember very little about it now, though I think I was rather positive. However, I didn’t feel any compulsion to read more of her work. Over the last year or so, though, I’ve seen more and more of my trusted book-reading friends proclaiming that she is among their favorites, that they cannot get enough, that if you’ve only read Hotel du Lac you really don’t know how great she is. Okay, I finally said, I’ll give her a go (it helped that Penguin UK had just released a large batch of her books in attractive new editions). I started at the beginning, her 1981 novel A Start in Life, and it is among the best debuts I have ever read. It is among the best books I’ve read. I loved it unconditionally. I have nothing bad to say about it whatsoever. I do plan on highlighting some of its strengths and delights in this post, but if you’re looking for anything other than praise for Brookner’s debut you will come up empty here.
Let’s start with the opening line:
Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.
Is there any way for readers like us to resist such an opener? It’s bold and wonderful. I’m glad to say that the book just keeps getting better from there.
Our protagonist is Ruth Weiss. The story begins when she is forty and trying to reconcile all of the unanticipated — even unwanted — occurrences that led her to where she is in life. As a child, the “moral universe” was presented in the books she loved: “For virtue would surely triumph, patience would surely be rewarded.” As a child, she couldn’t imagine it being any different, and she feels that she was blinded to some greater truth:
So eager was she to join this upward movement towards the light that she hardly noticed that her home resembled the ones she was reading about: a superficial veil of amusement over a deep well of disappointment.
Most of the novel concerns her upbringing in London and her attempt to become independent in Paris. Holding her back are her fully realized parents, George and Helen. We learn about what they wanted in life, as well, and understand how they, closer to the end than Ruth, have had to delude themselves that they’d missed the boat. George had a job he didn’t want and eventually found himself in a marriage he’d rather avoid, instead working to pass a few evening hours in a mirage of marital bliss in another woman’s home. For her part, Helen had been a stage star but finds herself bed-ridden when she is no longer considered for roles.
George and Ruth have retreated from the stresses of trying to make something work in their life. Unfortunately, they feel they can now rely heavily on their daughter, threatening to erode her life as well.
In the country of the old and sick there are environmental hazards. Cautious days. Early nights. A silent, ageing life in which the anxiety of the invalid overrides the vitality of the untouched.
Ruth is not the type of woman who will confidently take the world by storm, either. She is not particularly attractive to the men she knows, and she certainly hasn’t learned much from her parents, who don’t really understand their strange daughter. She’s of that temperament that feels disappointment keenly and still manages to say, “I’m very lucky, really.”
But Ruth does feel a desire to spread her wings, to have, well, a start, though deferred, in life.
In her blue dress, in which she had not taken Paris by storm, and her wool coat, Ruth felt shabby and obedient. The girl wore trousers and a pullover, the man a well-cut suit of tweed. A great desire for change came over Ruth and a great uncertainty as to how this might be brought about. For she knew, obscurely, that she had capacities as yet untried but that they might be for ever walled up unless her circumstances changed. Love, she supposed, might do it, but there was no one with whom she might fall in love.
A Start in Life is an intelligent exploration of lives eroding from circumstance, and the stories folks tell themselves to get by. The characters are delightful and frustrating and painfully real. I’m ready for more Brookner.