This 19th novel by Brookner (Falling Slowly,1999, etc.) suggests that the prolific author may have mined as much as possible from her most persistent theme. Always the great anatomist of anomie, Brookner has charted how fear, self-absorption, and family-inflicted wounds keep people isolated from one another. She's created some memorable—even tragic—characters and traced with great exactness the ways they try, and almost always fail, to break out of the isolation that so bedevils them. Claire Pitt, the young-woman narrator here, is another version of this archetypal Brooknerian figure. The only child of a loveless union, Claire has, like many Brookner protagonists, a lively intelligence, largely used to meditate on various kinds of human folly and speculate on others— secret flaws. She describes herself as "a hunger artist whose hunger is rarely satisfied." At her job in a used bookstore, Claire encounters the handsome, reticent Martin Gibson, who has wandered in. She manufactures a reason to visit his home, where she meets his domineering, older, ailing wife and learns about Martin's past as an academic. When his wife dies, Claire steadily pursues the maddeningly elusive Martin. Although they become lovers, he remains shadowy, only grudgingly divulging any of his plans or hopes. Claire, despite believing she is —not destined for the happiness of a settled life,— begins to entertain ideas of marrying Martin. It's to Brookner's credit that the depth of Martin's duplicity, when it's disclosed, is quite startling. Claire, however, is too chilly and vague a figure (the reader learns much about what she thinks but virtually nothing about the specifics of her past, or even her appearance) to elicit the sympathy Brookner appears to think she deserves. She seems more a symptom than a person. Brookner's supple, precise prose, and her special sense of the ways in which people reveal and disguise themselves, are still in evidence. Yet, ultimately, they seem in the service here of a theme that she, on the basis of this dry, unmoving book, may finally have exhausted.
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