A lusterless grad student of landscape-gardening trembles on the brink of taking an interest in life.
Narrow, reticent, self-contained—these words describe almost any Brookner heroine. They certainly fit Emma Roberts, who sums up her meager origins by saying, “we were a very small, not to say non-existent, family.” That family is comprised solely of Emma and her widowed mother. “If I was not extremely vigilant,” Emma notes, “I might run the risk of living her life over again.” Emma’s Uncle Rob is the quintessential Brooknerian Other. Rude and assertive, he detested Emma’s long-dead father and openly dislikes her on the basis of her paternity. Before his certitude, Emma and her mother simply ebb away to nothing. When Emma goes to France to research her thesis, she is befriended by a young library assistant named Françoise. Unlike Emma, Françoise is active, aggressive and highly sexed. She invites Emma home to her family’s country house and manipulates Emma, to her own advantage. Emma seems to take pleasure in allowing her to do so, in part so the full measure of Françoise’s character, or lack of it, will be revealed, but also because even a vicarious life is better than nothing. Emma manifests the same lack of energy in her dealings with men. And because both of the men she knows seem as spiritless as she, these relationships have all the fire of a blaze kindled from a single match and a damp log. Although Emma deplores her purposeless solitude, she works to maintain it and thinks disdainfully that she “prefers her gardens deserted.” The beautifully ordered prose of Brookner’s 23rd novel (Making Things Better, 2003, etc.) is the verbal equivalent of the empty gardens Emma inhabits.
At one point, Emma has a dream in which she knows “simply and conclusively, that I was loved.” Nothing in waking life affords her, or us, a comparable satisfaction.