How to live alone and get by, Brookner style…

July 16, which will be Anita Brookner’s 83rd birthday, has been renamed International Anita Brookner Day by Thomas at My Porch and Simon at Savidge Reads.  To celebrate this author, they have set up the IABD Website with a competition to win AB books for those submitting reviews by July 16.  Naturally, I decided to join in the fun, especially as I haven’t read a book by her for some years. The book I chose to read from my TBR piles was …

The Rules of Engagement by Anita Brookner

This, her 22nd novel published in 2003, is typical Brookner with all her trademark features.  The story is about two women who meet at school but stay in touch throughout their lives.  Two girls, both called Elizabeth meet at school.  They’re both only children, Elizabeth’s parents divorced, Betsy’s died and she then lived with her aunt.  Betsy is the pretty one, and when they both spend some time in Paris, it’s Betsy that falls passionately in love; Elizabeth uses her time there coming to terms with being on her own.

Later back in England, Elizabeth marries Digby, a widower many years her senior. Theirs is a comfortable marriage – no surprises, no passion, no children either. Elizabeth is happy with this, but then she embarks on an affair with one of Digby’s friends – this relationship is one of convenience, physical needs are satisfied, but Elizabeth gradually begins to fall for Edmund.  Then Betsy comes back into her life, and things are gradually turned upside down – and Betsy’s life will continue to impact on her oldest friend’s for years to come.

If you didn’t know the book I was describing was by Brookner, from the description above, you might guess it was by Joanna Trollope say with some complicated entanglements amongst the middle classes.  But it’s not. Through the voice of Elizabeth, Brookner tells the story of an ordinary woman disappointed with life and love, ultimately content with her own company, but somehow deep down wishing she’d had the wide-eyed innocence of her friend to take her down another path.  Elizabeth meditates at length on her life, relationships and friendships, decisions taken, and things not done to keep life unruffled.

This is where I had a problem with this book.  In reality nothing much does happen – at least not to Elizabeth. It all happens to Betsy, but Elizabeth is telling the story, so we don’t know the half of it. Instead, we’re subjected to Elizabeth’s introspection about life, the universe and everything.  Characters’ actions were described in intricate detail in this book, however I felt I never really got under Elizabeth’s skin, despite having over 250 pages to get to know her.  I wish I’d been able to write more enthusiastically about this novel, for I have enjoyed the others I have read, but I feel that The Rules of Engagement is one for Brookner completists, first time readers should probably start elsewhere.  (6.5/10)

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I bought my book.  To explore on Amazon UK (via my affiliate link), click below:
The Rules of Engagement by Anita Brookner.

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A Wartime Romance

The Novel in the Viola by Natasha Solomons

In the same way that we all rejoiced when the TV powers that be gave us Downton Abbey and resurrected Upstairs Downstairs, not to mention the Oscar-winning success of The King’s Speech, we should also be delighted that Natasha Solomons has given us a WWII equivalent in novel form.

The Novel in the Viola has much in common with all those mentioned above. It is cosy – there’s nothing wrong with that; but it’s not sentimental with it. This novel has a cast of brilliantly drawn characters, most of which you’ll come to love within pages of meeting.  It also has a real sense of its place in time, starting in 1938, just before war breaks out, which gives a sense of urgency behind the narrative.  The sense of place is also palpable – a big old country house in a large estate, by the south coast; Tyneford is as much the star as any of the characters.

The story is deceptively simple.  Elise Landau arrives at Tyneford to become a parlourmaid in 1938 to the Rivers family. Mr Rivers is a widower, his son Kit is up at university. Elise, who comes from a well-to-do family in Vienna, is Jewish; giving up her genteel life in Austria and travelling to England to enter service is one of the only ways of getting out of the country after the Anschluss. At first it is hard for her to become a servant, especially when she has to act as ladies maid to two sisters guests at Kit’s 21st birthday party…

Diana sat down at the vanity table, gazed into the mirror and rolled her eyes.
‘Lordy! I am such a mess. Can you fix hair – what-was-your-name?’
‘Elise. And I can try if you like.’
I picked up a brush and a couple of pins and reached out for a stray blond curl. She slapped my hand away.
‘Stop it. You’ll only make it worse.’
I bit my lip with the effort of not answering back.
Juno sank down on the window seat. ‘This weather is awful. Why he’s having the party now, Christ only knows. He could have waited till June or July and some decent chance of sun. This place is absolutely horrid in winter.’
Diana fluffed her curls. ‘The countryside is a hobby, not a place where one actually lives.’
I chewed my tongue. Had i ever been like this? I hoped not, though Hilde would have spanked me if I’d tried. Diana looked at me in the mirror.
‘So Ellis, you are a German Jewess?’
‘Austrian.’
‘Oh yes. Same thing,’ she snapped, impatient.
‘I am from Vienna.’
‘The Viennese are very fashionable.’ She turned to her sister. ‘I heard that Jecca Dunworthy was waited on by a Viennese Countess when she stayed with the Pitt-Smyth’s in Bath.’
I said nothing and picked blond strands from the hairbrush. Diana reapplied her lipstick.

I haven’t mentioned Kit properly yet. He makes friends with Elise, he helps with her English lessons, and of course you hope that they’ll end up together – they are obviously attracted to each other from the outset.  There are many obstacles in the way of a relationship between these star-crossed lovers, not least the war. Their romance is truly fairytale stuff, but ultimately more interesting is the relationship between Elise and Kit’s father. They strike up a friendship after he finds out that Elise’s father is the famous novelist Julian Landau – Mr Rivers has all his novels.

One of this novel’s great strengths is how it shows what happened in big households when war came, as one by one the younger servants leave to join up, and the family’s sons go off to be officers. The older butler and housekeeper try to keep standards up, but it becomes too much, and there is a certain amount of bringing together upstairs and downstairs which works in this household, and Mr Rivers mucks in on the farm, and with the fishermen happily, preferring to be busy.

I found this novel to be utterly charming, with lovely touches of humour alongside the bittersweet romance. Underlying it all was the fact that the war changes everything, and that it really was the end of an era. The characters were wonderful – Elise starts off as the slightly spoilt, wide-eyed innocent, and grows into an assured young woman page by page. Oh, and in case you’re wondering (and as it’s mentioned near the beginning, it’s not really spoiling), there is a novel in the viola – I won’t explain more!

I really hope this novel has been snapped up for a screen adaptation – it would be perfect in the Sunday drama slot. I really wish they hadn’t put a fluffy cover on the paperback though (above right), as it makes it seem like any old romance, and this book is much more than that.  (9.5/10)

My copy came courtesy of Amazon Vine, but I’m off to dig out my own copy of Solomons’ debut novel now – Mr Rosenblum’s List.  Read another post about The Novel in the Viola, and an interview with the author over at Savidge Reads.

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To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate links), click below:
The Novel in the Viola and Mr. Rosenblum’s List: Or Friendly Guidance for the Aspiring Englishman by Natasha Solomons:
Downton Abbey – Series 1 [DVD]
Upstairs Downstairs [DVD]
The King’s Speech [DVD]

Is this a case of middle-aged disappointment?

Now my daughter is ten, she tends to read books to herself, but occasionally at bedtime I still read to her when there’s a book she requests.  We’ve had great fun revisiting some of her toddler books – I kept a pile of our favourites – you know the ones – The Gruffalo, Kipper, The very hungry caterpillar, etc. Recently she requested that I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to her, as she tried to read it by herself, but just ‘didn’t get it’.  So we’ve read a chapter at a time over the past few weeks, when she was in the mood to be read to.

As a child, I read both Alice books again and again – although I much preferred Through the Looking Glass as it has a) Jabberwocky, b) Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and most importantly, c) knitting sheep. But back to Alice the first, I was delighted that I could read Alice again, this time with funny voices…

So we started:  Alice saw the White Rabbit and fell down the hole – fine.  She drank and ate and changed size several times, cried a river and scared a little mouse with tales of her cat Dinah – still fine.  But by the mouse’s lecture on Will the Conqueror and the Dodo’s Caucus Race, it was starting to already get a bit mad for my daughter, who’s much more used to ‘wimpy’ or ‘dorky’ diaries of modern school children set in the real world.  By the time we got halfway at the pig and pepper, if it hadn’t been for the Cheshire Cat, I really would have lost her attention.  We kept on reading right to the end, but I think Juliet was just enjoying being read to, rather than understanding what was going on. I tried to explain that each chapter was really a separate adventure with different creatures that would come together at the end, but that seemed to confuse her more.

What about my experience on this re-reading.  The largest part of the story is in dialogue – whether it be Alice talking to herself, or the characters talking to at each other. Having to concentrate on consistency in my voices reading all these terribly convoluted conversations with their often circular arguments, it struck me that not only were they all talking at each other nearly all the time, but they were not listening to each other either, Alice included.  She was fine on her own with her philosophies, but she was as bad as all the others the rest of the time – what a chatterbox!  Again it was up to the Cheshire Cat to save the day.

Four decades on, the result was that I found the book a bit of a disappointment. I can only conclude that it is possibly a story best read by oneself rather than aloud; to have the space and time to re-view the scenes as you go if needed.  It certainly wasn’t the fantasy that I had loved so much as a child.  It was completely bonkers, full of maddening and argumentative characters – most of whom had few redeeming features, and had a heroine who was a proper little madam.

Rather than reading Alice in Wonderland again, I would however like to read Martin Gardner’s book The Annotated Alice which has everything you ever wanted to know about the book explained. As for Juliet and I, we are going to persevere and read Through the Looking Glass together, but I might re-read it to myself first!

Have you ever re-read a favourite book from years before and been disappointed?

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To explore Alice on Amazon UK, click below:
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition