To 29-year-old Claire Pitt, a self-contained single woman living in London, her mother's death is more than an ordinary bereavement: it is the beginning of a process of self-doubt and a failure of nerve. Left alone in the apartment that she and her mother shared, Claire gradually realizes that she craves ""the permanence of someone's affections""--and the state of marriage, which she has always despised. Having vaguely pitied her widowed mother, Claire now feels sorry for the elderly spinster she works for at a second-hand bookstore. Faintly hoping to avoid these two women's lonely fates, Claire now sees that she is as alone and vulnerable as they were, and that her sexual freedom--exercised in quick, anonymous couplings that she initiates and then abandons--has not given her any basis for a lasting relationship. Opportunity seems to appear when Martin Gibson, a handsome, wealthy, but shallow and self-absorbed ex-professor, comes into the bookstore. When Martin's invalid wife dies soon afterwards, Claire sets her cap for him and fantasizes the life she will have--notwithstanding her skeptical nature and the absence of love on both sides. In Brookner's expert hands, Claire's realization that weak, unworthy Martin will not neatly fulfill her dreams is accomplished with lapidarian skill. At first Claire is complacent about her own shortcomings (""I'd lay claim to few moral qualities""), but she has no qualms about her behavior. She is an opportunist who views the world through ironic eyes. Yet Brookner's portrait of Claire's disillusionment and growing fear, as she descends from a competent independence to a state of frightened wandering in the heart's desert, is etched with quiet compassion. The novel contains a fine brace of supporting characters whose behavior implicitly reflects on Claire's fall into limbo, and Brookner's narrative skill works like a scalpel exposing the complexity of each of their lives. As she has done many times before (Falling Slowly, etc.), but never with more acuity or grace, Brookner illuminates the inner turmoil of lonely people living courageously while the door to the future begins to swing closed. (Jan.)
Reviewed on: 11/29/1999 Release date: 12/01/1999 Genre: Fiction
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