Anita Brookner, . . Random, $23.95 (288pp) ISBN 978-1-4000-6165-5

To read Brookner is to be reminded of fiction's potential to stun, with full, complex characters in a richly imagined world, as she draws on her insights into human nature to explore the strained yet enduring friendship of two women of "the last virginal generation." Born in 1948 and friends from childhood, the open, eager-to-please Betsy and the cooler, analytical Elizabeth appear to have little in common. But they share many things, including stubbornness, strength and, dangerously, the same married lover. Seen through the eyes of 50-something Elizabeth, the novel chronicles the often devastating choices the two women make as they age; as such, it is more a book of thought than action. The reclusive Elizabeth, conscious of the mysterious "virtue attached to being a witness," dissects the minutest of human interactions, imposing elaborate rules of self-governance with which she often does battle. Her gaze is ruthless but brilliantly illuminating. "I saw our childlessness as an indictment, a reproach to what had been our folly," Elizabeth observes of herself and Betsy. "We had seen ourselves always as lovers, whereas sensible persons, or perhaps those with greater understanding of the world, make their peace with existing circumstances.... we had chosen, she and I, to stay within the limits of this exalted and fragile condition." Within those limits, in Brookner's skilled hands, vast worlds of human possibility exist. (Jan.)

Forecast: Brookner has established a dedicated readership through such books as the Booker-winning Hotel du Lac and Making Things Better. This elegant, thought-provoking novel will surely increase it.