Another of Brookner's elegiac tales of a wasted life: Harriet Lytton is the latest in a long line of Brookner protagonists too timid to stake their claim. An only child with an unprepossessing birthmark and a docile nature, Harriet is born on the eve of WW II. Parents Hughie and Merle, Bright Young Things in prewar England, have a difficult time adjusting to postwar austerity; Hughie is a basket case after his POW experiences, but hard, practical Merle holds things together with her London dress-shop, and marries Harriet off to wealthy, middle-aged oil-man Freddie Lytton, who's looking for calm waters after a humiliating first marriage and divorce. Harriet, with no experience of men, accepts the arrangement, feeling for Freddie a ""tender but detached amusement""; only when she meets Jack Peckham, the sexy journalist-husband of best friend Tessa, does she feel physically aroused. Fulfillment of a sort comes when she has an astonishingly beautiful daughter (Imogen), but it's not until much later--after Tessa has died of cancer--that she gets to kiss Jack. That kiss is the novel's central event, illuminating for Harriet the bleakness of her life, yet it changes nothing (she knows she could never manage adultery); because of this impasse, the life goes out of the story. Restlessly, Brookner turns to her other characters: tough-cookie Imogen, uninhibitedly staking her claim until killed off in an improbable car-crash; Tessa's daughter Lizzie, destined for as lonely a life as Harriet's; and boring old Freddie, who decomposes slowly in Switzerland while Harriet tries to recapture her life's one sunny period, nurturing little Immy. The singular attention that Brookner pays to her love-starved protagonist is as impressive as ever, but the lack of events, plus Harriet's inability to change, does the novel in: you can't make bricks without straw.