Despite hard-working allusions to EugÃ‰nie Grandet, this oddly paced, strangely off-kilter first novel stirs up far more interest in its eccentric supporting cast than in its rather whiny and utterly passive modern-day EugÃ‰nie. She is professor Ruth Weiss, first glimpsed at age 40--author of Women in Balzac's Novels, neat, repressed, clearly not happy. And then we go back in time to learn, more or less, how Ruth got that way: in her family's doomed and increasingly bizarre London household, circa 1945-1965. There's Grandmother Weiss, a somber refugee whose massive Berlin furniture and utter domestic competence dominate the scene. There's well-fed father George, a dandy who has reluctantly transplanted his late father's bookshop-business to London. There's mother Helen, a tautly beautiful demi-star of West End comedies. And when Grandmother dies, these strangely childish, flighty parents draw even closer together (""Breakfast in bed for both of us, from now on""), with dubious help from the new housekeeper--wry, spry, chummy Mrs. Cutler. So an essentially neglected Ruth, growing up plain except for her rich red hair, turns to books and virtue, has hopeless crushes on classmates, and only later--while studying in Paris (liaisons with married men)--considers the merits of Balzacian opportunism. Meanwhile, however, her parents' unhealthy status quo is crumbling: Helen retreats into near-total isolation as she preserves her crumbling allure; George dotes on a platonic but intensely secret affair with a cozy, maternal widow; the dependency on Mrs. Cutler (who's secretly planning her own escape) is dangerous; and, after Ruth dutifully returns home to take over, her life winds down through her parents' decline and deaths, which lead (not too plausibly) to a brief marriage-of-convenience. Brookner writes with a fine, lean edge, and the pathos of the stunted middle-aged personalities here comes across with a dark, deadpan irony reminiscent of Bernice Rubens. Ruth, however, is a fatally unrealized character--sketchy, more clinical case than empathic victim, certainly no EugÃ‰nie Grandet--and, without a worthy focus, this is a talented but only sporadically involving debut.