Look At Me, Anita Brookner 1983
Brookner, who died in 2016, was born in England in 1928, the daughter of Jewish immigrants. She already had a career as an accomplished art historian at the Courtauld when, at age 53, she published her first novel. She went on to write 23 more in the next 28 years. I had never heard of her when I read her obituary, so in keeping with my custom of reading books by recently deceased authors, I read her Man Booker Prize winning novel from 1984, Hotel du Lac. I noticed ‘Look at Me’ on the shelf of a local used bookstore and I had just read a brief comment about it in a recent New York Times Book Review. As in the Hotel du Lac, this novel is about a single woman who is lonely and wants much more out of life. Francis works as a librarian in a medical research institute, a job she values and enjoys. She has a quiet life in her large and comfortable flat left to her by her mother who had recently died. Life is quiet, stable, boring and not very satisfying. Then she is picked up by a stylish and exciting couple, Nick and Alix, and is suddenly a part of their clique, eating dinner and talking at a local restaurant many nights a week. Along the way, she develops a relationship with one of Nick’s colleagues at the institute, and she and James become constant companions. She is happy though perhaps not in love. Suddenly, though, things change; for reasons that are unclear to her, she is dropped by Nick and Alix; James becomes remote and then disappears. By book’s end, Francis is resigned to her life as an observer and turns her energy to writing about life rather than living it. Not much happens in this book. There are many long days in the library and long walks and rainy nights in London, but Brookner is a keen observer of the details of life and an able chronicler of loneliness and brings this otherwise mundane and dreary story to life. This is a fine novel to curl up with on a winter night and read straight through. If you’re looking for sex or adventure, look elsewhere. But Brookner is quite able to develop narrative tension about human relationships and to keep a story moving towards an ending that is realistic in that it is disappointing for our main character.