cover image Brief Lives

Brief Lives

Anita Brookner. Random House (NY), $20 (260pp) ISBN 978-0-394-58548-2

A latter-day Jane Austen, Brookner distills irony and tragedy from the essence of quiet lives. Here she reaches new heights of insight and empathy in the story of a woman whose life, while not brief in years, is emotionally stunted, circumscribed by her passive personality and the social climate of her times. The brevity of hope and ``the hopelessness of desire'' are the elegiac leitmotifs that run throughout this lucid, meticulously written story. Narrator Fay Langdon futilely seeks to recapture the ``Edenic simplicity'' of childhood, never achieving the romantic love promised in the popular songs of the '20s which she once sang on the radio. Now a ``woman of advanced years,''she looks back and reflects on her empty existence. As the compliant wife of a coldhearted workaholic lawyer who does not return her yearning for tenderness and intimacy; as the obedient friend of Julia, a monstrously snobbish, selfish woman, married to Fay's husband's business partner; and as the mistress of the latter after her husband dies, Fay has learned to serve others with humble self-effacement that masks her secret bitterness, desolation and longing. Brookner dips her pen in acid for her portrait of the poisonous Julia, and in rue for her evocation of the specter of solitary old age that Fay faces with dignity. (June)