"Latecomers" refers to adults who've had a bad start in life, and Brookner comes up with four of them, neatly grouped into two couples, in this latest of the intricately observed and meticulously mannered novels that have made her one of England's most popular writers. The cheerful couple, the Hartmanns, live in the flat above the gloomy couple, the Fibichs. The two men, friends from boyhood, are both German ÇmigrÇs and now own a successful photocopying business together. Hartmann chooses to smile his way through life, never looking back, while Fibich stews in the bitter juices of the past, brooding and unable to eat. His wife, shy Christine, loves him, nurtures him, and never expects much more from life--in contrast to pretty, self-centered Yvette Hartmann, who blithely and contentedly makes certain her own small dreams come true. Each couple has one child and, with typical Brookner irony, Marianne Hartmann turns out to be placid and plain while Toto Fibich is lively, handsome, and irresponsible. So what happens here? Does tragedy strike down the happy Hartmanns? Do the Fibichs unload some of life's burdens? Do Toto and Marianne find each other and form a perfect balance? No, none of the above. As usual, Brookner propels her cast of richly drawn characters to the very brink of discovery, but never lets them take the plunge. It takes skill to exert this kind of control and to make the merest fillip of convention pass for action. Brookner has mastered this skill, and it's served her well. As elaborately layered as a German torte, but reassuring as an English tea biscuit, devoid of any indigestible surprises--one, no doubt, to be gobbled up by the Brookner faithful.