Synopsis (from Goodreads):
The Booker Prize winner in 1984 for the best original novel written in the English language, penned by Anita Brookner, finds a new vocabulary for framing the eternal question “Why love?” It tells the story of Edith Hope, who writes romance novels under a pseudonym. When her life begins to resemble the plots of her own novels, however, Edith flees to Switzerland, where the quiet luxury of the Hotel du Lac promises to resore her to her senses.
But instead of peace and rest, Edith finds herself sequestered at the hotel with an assortment of love’s casualties and exiles. She also attracts the attention of a worldly man determined to release her unused capacity for mischief and pleasure. Beautifully observed, witheringly funny, Hotel du Lac is Brookner at her most stylish and potently subversive.
I decided to read a book by Anita Brookner as a part of my never-ending quest for a sensible female author who does the romance in an intelligent, real way. Who would qualify better than a Booker Prize winner, I ask?
I admit it: what made this worth my while was how beautiful Brookner wrote about being alone in public places full of people who don’t know you and don’t care. I have no words to describe how well she was able to capture the mood by using the hotel’s surroundings to reflect the sadness and hopelessness that Edith has in the first half of the book. When the plot thickened towards the second half, though, the magic was lost.
Then there was the main heroine. Imagine an adult, almost 40-year-old woman who is practically forced to leave her London house and go to a remote Swiss hotel because, according to her ‘friends’, she did something inexcusable and scandalous (I don’t want to spoil you – it takes over half a book to reveal what exactly Edith did and why). Oh, and she has a book to finish, that’s always a perfect excuse – at least her editor thinks so. Off she goes, like an obedient puppy.
From that moment everything happens to Edith in slow motion – walks, meals, coffee, tea, cakes, clothes, more walks, mothers, daughters, elderly ladies, ladies with a dog, gloomy memories, writing letters which will never be sent (it’s the eighties, there are no mobiles, Internet or laptops around), walks, talks, gauntness, autumnal colours, more damned walks, more wretched meals and so on. Wit? What wit? When on p. 143 I read such a sentence: “my patience with this little comedy is wearing a bit thin” I wanted to clap and cheer – finally! Unfortunately soon enough Edith had to prove that her patience was indeed, unwearying, no matter what was happening to her. She allowed people and things influence her, went with the current and hardly ever took an independent, adult decision. Even after a total failure from the side of her alleged friends she agreed to continue leading her pretty much gaunt existence in a world where socialites swim slowly in a social fishtank constantly judging and appraising each other’s sexual, sartorial, social and financial status. How very boring. And immature. And wrong.
Then, roughly in the middle, the author reveals what’s really eating Edith Hope. You see, she is a spinster. No, not single. Spinster. She has achieved professional success with her novels, she’s earning quite a lot, she has a lovely house with a garden but….no man by her side. That shortcoming makes her feel cold and empty inside. Still she is also apologetically staunch: Prince Charming or bust. Well, lady, at your age, you are no longer a princess material…
After a while we are told she’s found her perfect lover – unfortunately that man, David, has a wife and two children. It also becomes obvious from the very beginning he will never divorce in order to marry Edith and make her ‘reelly heppy’. Poor Edith still clings to him like a flea to a fleecy dog, hoping against hope that one day a miracle will happen and her beloved will see the light of truth, love and wisdom. She calls herself ‘a turtle’ in order to explain her passivity but she behaves more like that proverbial ostrich, with her head stuck deeply in the sand (or other, less savoury place). I kept thinking that your average Austen romance heroine, despite all the society limits, had twice more brain, guts and far more independence than this supposedly ‘modern’ woman.
Then a perfectly handsome, successful, erudite, and considerate man proposes to her. He promises a life of shared interests and enhanced social standing. What he doesn’t promise is romantic love; he tells Edith upfront that after a failed marriage he is too jaded. Have your discreet love affairs if you wish, he says, and I will have mine – we won’t talk about it or be embarrassed by them but, as long as you keep a respectable front as my wife everything will be fine. In return she can, however, expect consideration, financial security and professional support. Edith’s reaction is childish at best, irresponsible at worst as she more or less repeats her innitial mistake: (spoiler, highlight to read or skip) she agrees to marry him and then she ditches him seeing the proof that he indeed has every intention to cheat on her, even before they are truly committed.
There is also cliffhanger at the end, as if the author herself was afraid of her heroine’s choices, which made me sigh with relief and thank the gods this novel was so short.
A sad book about inert, sad people who either are forced to be in exile by others, or simply have nowhere else to go. It asks big questions about ideals and compromises. It suggests all the wrong answers. I can’t believe that this one won over J. G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun even if Brookner’s narrative voice is impeccable. And no, I don’t want to watch the movie, based on it, thank you very much. Such inert characters as Edith make me want to retch.