cover image Falling Slowly

Falling Slowly

Anita Brookner. Random House (NY), $24 (240pp) ISBN 978-0-375-50189-0

Women whose empty emotional lives are conducted behind a facade of stoic acceptance are Brookner's stock-in-trade. Here, she evokes an almost palpable atmosphere of resigned regret as she chronicles a turning point in the fortunes of two middle-aged sisters in London. Beatrice and Miriam Sharpe have spent their entire lives falling slowly through space: unattached, isolated from society, essentially passive. Miriam, the younger, sharp-tongued, divorced sister, who earns a comfortable living as a translator, is now dryly disillusioned and skeptical about the future. Beatrice, whose contract as a piano accompanist has not been renewed, is a fluttery, incurable romantic who has always expected to meet her Prince Charming. Both have lived cautiously, waiting for high points that have never arrived. Now they both realize that they are on the downhill side of life. During the course of several months, Miriam falls in love with a faithless man and is betrayed, and loses both Beatrice and another man whose love could have redeemed her hermetic existence. Brookner is acutely sensitive to her characters' emotions, minutely dissecting the particular state of suspended loneliness in which they dwell. As usual, the reader is surprised when the cool, understated narrative elicits sudden heartache. But there's an unwelcome surprise, too: uncharacteristically, Brookner employs a cliched plot device to signal the end of Miriam's hopes. Survival with dignity is Miriam's small triumph, after she realizes that ""I'm better off alone.... There were no happy endings."" Brookner's (Visitors) impeccable craftsmanship and worldly irony make each of her novels memorable, but here her heroines' passivity becomes exasperating. (Jan.)