Brookner's 18th novel (Visitors, 1998. etc.) offers moving variations on the animating theme of all her fiction: the origins, nature, and consequences of human isolation. This time, the theme is played out in the lives of two bright but troubled sisters, Miriam and Beatrice. Brookner's narrative deftly shuttles back and forth over several decades, tracing the sisters' conflicted yearnings for love and independence. Beatrice, a talented but uninspired pianist, eventually gives up performing--a decision driven equally by stiffening fingers and her disappointment that practicing her art hasn't brought her anyone to love. Miriam, otherwise so lucid, has an affair with a charming, heartless married man, deluding herself into believing that her trysts will meet with a happy outcome. Few contemporary writers are as fascinated as Brookner by the complex relations of siblings, and none can match her vigor or originality in excavating family histories. The faded gentility of Miriam and Beatrice's family life, and the unquestioned assumption of their parents that a woman can be fulfilled only by marriage (an assumption the sisters both resist and embrace), are artfully conveyed. The ways in which the sisters both need and rebuff each other are also explored with economy and precision. Brookner finds a perfect symbol of the relationship in Miriam's sudden marriage to a bland scientist: the marriage both allows her to distance herself from her increasingly dependent sister, and permits her to maintain her special ties to Beatrice. Those ties are eventually severed by death, and the story's last third rather rigorously traces Miriam's efforts to come to grips with the inescapable loneliness of her existence. Her struggles, waged in the anonymity of London's austere thoroughfares and neighborhoods, are moving, and her eventual embrace of solitude as an essential part of the human condition is both disturbing and convincing. Brookner owns such terrain. Those familiar with her work will find this a particularly spare and sharp variation. Those unfamiliar with it may find the book excessively bleak and somewhat deterministic.