My third read for this month’s Brookner in July – and possibly my favourite of the three. I was captivated by Brookner’s beautiful prose from the first sentence.
Emma Roberts is twenty six and living a fairly claustrophobic existence with her widowed mother in a London flat. Emma realises that it is time she break free from this world which includes frequent visits from her mother’s disapproving and domineering brother. Emma is a reserved young woman, who longs to be like other young women, attending parties and having lovers, and yet she seems incapable of living such a life. Offered a scholarship to study seventeenth century garden design in Paris Emma grabs her chance. Once in Paris, Emma takes a room in a small Hotel. At the library where she goes to work, Emma meets Francoise Desnoyers, a confident worldly young woman with whom Emma soon strikes up a friendship despite their obvious differences.
“Obedient to Francoise’s instructions I moved into a small hotel, and at last began to think of myself as a citizen, though any observer could have told from my excessive compliance, my anxiety not to infringe the rules, that I was nothing of the kind. “
Francoise herself is struggling to free herself from her own mother, a traditional woman who Francoise is obliged to visit regularly at the beautiful chateau in the countryside. Francoise enlists Emma’s help in her desire to stay in Paris as long as possible, not ready quite to bury herself in the country and live the conventional life she is supposed to. Mme Desnoyers insists that Francoise should marry the wealthy son of a family friend, whose mother will then secure their future. On a weekend visit to the Desnoyers’ country home Emma sees Francoise life with her overbearing mother in a new light, giving her a more positive view of her own. Enjoying her new found freedom in Paris Emma meets Michael with whom she begins a fairly chaste relationship, although she sometimes yearns for the comforting familiarity of her home with her mother. In Francoise’s world and especially that of her mother, women are ultimately judged by the men in their lives, their father’s or their husbands. Francoise is a modern French woman, she has a love life and an easy confidence that Emma lacks, but she is her mother’s daughter and takes a pragmatic view of her future, leaving emotion out of the question. Emma is perhaps a little surprised by the similarity in their lives
So when a family tragedy requires Emma to rush back to London, it turns her life upside down. Flitting between Paris and London, and failing to find herself really at home in either place, her relationships with others all seem quite one sided. Emma wants a man in her life, likes the idea of being married, but her relationships turn more towards friendship and companionship, while Francoise ultimately rejects love, by opting for financial security. Emma struggles to find her way – not certain where home is now.
“I knew two things simultaneously: that I was unwilling to disturb my present routine, and that I was almost used to my quiet days and to the evenings when I could look forward to Philip’s company, if he were free. I knew almost superstitiously, that one should never go back, never retrace one’s steps in the hope that all would be as before, for it never is.”
Emma is not an entirely unsympathetic Brookner characters, but she is typical in her whiney introspectiveness, Emma is slightly cold, and her reserve puts her at a distance from the reader. However Brookner’s elegiac final line in this novel gives raise to some hope for her.
This really is a really lovely Brookner novel. Anita Brookner’s wonderful sense of place is again in evidence, I fairly gulped it down.