John David's Reviews > Leaving Home

Leaving Home by Anita Brookner
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Nov 30, 2011

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Read in November, 2011

After reading a couple of online interviews and other pieces about Anita Brookner, a distinctive personality profile starts to emerge. Professionally trained as an art historian, she taught at the Courtauld Institute and developed a reputation as a rather distinguished academic. She didn’t publish her first novel, “A Start in Life,” until she was in her fifties. She almost never gives interviews, is known among friends as being extraordinarily intelligent, and according to herself, wants nothing more than to be left alone. She has never married, stating “I chose the wrong people, and the wrong people chose me. So it never came about. At the time that was a cause of great sadness, certainly.”

Much like in the novels of J. M. Coetzee, we must only engage in a willful suspension of disbelief when we are asked to assume Brookner’s storyline is more novel than memoir. Emma, the novel’s protagonist, is strikingly like Brookner herself: cold, distant, aloof, and perhaps eager for excitement, but would think it gauche to ever outwardly show that eagerness. Feeling trapped by her suffocating relationship with her mother (who, by the way, also highly resembles Brookner), Emma moves to Paris to study the designs of French palatial gardens, unconsciously thinking this might bring some sort of linearity to her otherwise disordered personal life.

Once she arrives in Paris, she slowly befriends Francoise Desnoyers, who works in the library where Emma regularly studies. She quickly pegs Francoise as a sort of libertine, only to realize that she too has an awkward, cumbersome relationship with her mother. Instead of the rational progress she envisioned that could be easily transferred from her study of gardens to her personal life, she is stupefied by the similarity of her circumstances. Once Emma is introduced to Francoise’s mother, she is quickly drawn into her family’s circle, with their outré manners and bizarre rituals.

Brookner, much like she has teased herself with the idea of happiness and fulfillment in real life, has done the same thing with Emma here. She meets men, and while she may be open-minded regarding her possible success in a romantic relationship, the reader gets the distinct impression that her overbearing cynicism and willful jadedness will crush any living thing within a mile. The message of the novel, if there is one, may very well be “growing is impossible, and don’t be so naïve as to think there is anything called happiness.”

Brookner’s style, on the other hand, left a wholly different impression on me. She can certainly write. She does it beautifully. Many of the sentences reminded me of early Henry James, with the kind of formal premeditation for which I have always had a fondness. Other reviews have suggested that “Hotel Du Lac” is a better novel, and it might be. But “Leaving Home” left me tired with its message of intellectual and emotional stagnation and utter pessimism.
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