cover image Leaving Home

Leaving Home

Anita Brookner, . . Random, $23.95 (212pp) ISBN 978-1-4000-6414-4

Brookner's narrators often combine a Jamesian inner life with a deceptively blank external one, and Emma Roberts is a paragon of that type. An English doctoral student in the late 1970s whose restraint matches her choice of studies—classical garden design—Emma grew up isolated with a widowed, reclusive mother. "We loved each other greatly," she says, "yet so exclusive was that love that it was experienced more like anguish." Emma is studying in Paris and living as hermetically as her mother; her only acquaintances are a sexually adventurous librarian, Françoise, and a reserved young novelist, Michael. When Emma gets word that her mother has died, she rushes home to London and within weeks finds herself in a muted, epistolary power struggle with Françoise. Meanwhile, Emma meets Philip Hudson, a surgeon whose taciturn nature rivals her own (and recalls a less exalted Mr. Darcy). But things happen in Emma's life only to be swallowed by the deep, silent river of her shyness and her willingness to go along with what others want. This isn't an Austen novel, and even an instant of unalloyed pleasure would seem glib after several pages of Emma's sere circumspection. That circumspection makes the novel very powerful, even as Emma's passivity is sometimes so extreme it feels concocted only to justify a few more elegant sentences. But Emma is among the most delicately rendered heroines in recent fiction. (Jan.)