STRANGERS by Anita Brookner

Book Quote:

“And for himself the future held little more than the grim routines that had always sustained him, together with the hope that they would sustain him to the end. Then it would be time to rely on the kindness of strangers, and the hope that this would prove more than a fond illusion.”

Book Review:

Review by Betsey Van Horn (JUL 26, 2010)

Anita Brookner is arguably one of the finest prose writers living today. Her keen precision and clean, stark sentences are edged with luminous turns of phrase and biting ironies. Her characters lead insular, lonely lives and rarely do anything optimistic with their existence, no matter how astute their insight.

Retired banker Paul Sturgis is no exception. He is 72 years old and lives a tightly circumscribed life. There is minimal pleasure in his activities, such as frequenting art museums, occasional travel around Europe, visiting his hairdresser, and his obligatory sojourns to a distant relative, Helena. Walking is his favorite activity, and it is during his perambulations that he examines his life in detail.

Paul is in constant conflict with himself. When he meets a woman in Venice, Vicky Gardner, he alternately can’t wait to escape her and get to know her better. When they meet up again in London, he allows her to manipulate him and leave her belongings at his house, while she takes off for parts unknown.

Paul has an ex-flame, Sarah, who was exuberant and sensual. After years of separation, they have a chance encounter and renew their bond, but it is one of friendship, not romance. Her health is declining, although her tongue is as astringent as ever. Paul entertains longings and fantasies of marrying Sarah, but he knows it is illusory. She is reproachful and inscrutable, and he cannot conquer the walls between them.

Paul is one of those neurotics whose basic mantra toward others would be, “I would die to have you, and kill you to get away.” He is a passive man who has never been able to negotiate strong women, although he admires them. He is in perpetual battle with his own desires, and his contradictory thoughts are often serially juxtaposed, one warring thought after another. That is part of Brookner’s wit and wisdom, her almost-aching but caustic acumen into human psychology.

The drawback of this story is its torpor. Although the author has an infinite supply of description and inner dialogue for Paul’s endless indecision and confusion, it begins to wear on the reader. It becomes repetitious, irritating, monotonous. Eventually, it devolves into a long-winded soliloquy. In lesser hands, I wouldn’t have even finished it. But Brookner’s magic with language kept me hanging to the bitter end. This would have worked better as a novella, reducing the pages by half.

I am a sturdy fan of Anita Brookner, and because of my familiarity with her work, I remained fastened to the narrative. I will read her for the scintillating prose, for her intoxicating metaphors. If you are unfamiliar with her work, start with her Booker winner Hotel du Lac, her shattering Look At Me, or her stunning Brief Lives.  Brookner’s elegiac prowess captivates with her story and character in most of her novels. But Strangers is not her finest achievement, nor one I would highly recommend to other readers.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 19 readers
PUBLISHER: Vintage (July 13, 2010)
REVIEWER: Betsey Van Horn
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Anita Brookner
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt

Hillary Mantel‘s review of Strangers

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July 26, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Posted in: Character Driven, End-of-Life, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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