With her usual bleak but discerning sympathy for the emotionally maimed, Brookner (Dolly, 1994, etc.) explores the struggles of just-retired George Bland, who lacks ``the necessary folly'' to live life to the full at last. On retirement, Bland, who has worked his way up from the working class to be a senior executive in a large British conglomerate, is financially well-off but psychologically adrift. There seems little point to his sensible, orderly life. For years he and Putnam, a fellow employee, had planned on travelling to the Far East once they retired, but Putnam died before they could do this, leaving Bland all his money. The two men, sharing similar backgrounds, had been close friends over the years. Neither had married, but both had affairs with women. Now unable to enjoy a solitary vacation in Nice, Bland flies back to his colorless London apartment. There, in the weeks before Christmas, his life is suddenly disturbed by the arrival of 30ish Katy Gibb, who moves temporarily into a friend's apartment across the hall. Gibb talks vaguely of starting a New Agetype business, unabashedly wears her friend's clothes, and lets people buy her meals. She is moody, a scrounger with an unhappy past, but Bland, who has always been scrupulously respectable, finds her exciting. As Bland takes stock of his life, he realizes that he has never been truly free: His adolescence was constrained by unhappy parents, his adulthood by work, and his love life by a long, inconclusive affair with worthy Louise. Desperate to experience freedom just once, Bland invites Gibb to spend Christmas in Rome with him, but she has other plans. Bland ruefully accepts that ``now I must live my life as I always have lived it.'' Life as it too often is, but Brookner infuses defeat with a sort of exhilarating grandeur.