Brookner (Leaving Home, 2006, etc.) tells the story of bookish retiree Paul Sturgis.
Most of the novel takes place within Paul’s mind, which is also where most of Paul’s life takes place. Since leaving his job and the comfort of routine, Paul finds himself with only one ritual—occasional visits with Helena, the widow of his cousin and thus a distant relative, but apparently his only living one. Neither of them seems to enjoy the visits much, though they provide human connection in a world otherwise filled with strangers. Two chance encounters promise to enliven Paul’s existence, or threaten to complicate it. On a trip to Venice to avoid Helena’s annual Christmas invitation, he meets Vicky Gardner, a vivacious woman some 20 years younger. “Women, after pursuit on his part, had found him disappointing in a way that he had never fully understood,” muses Paul, yet Vicky doesn’t. Or maybe he doesn’t give her the chance. Or maybe she’s so engulfed by the complications of her life—her recent divorce, her rootlessness bordering on homelessness—that she simply doesn’t realize how disappointing a relationship with Paul might be. They continue to meet back home in London, complicating Paul’s life in a way that he occasionally finds stimulating but more often uncomfortable. Another chance encounter offers another complication, when he runs into Sarah, one of the women who had found him disappointing, and still does. Yet Sarah was one of only two girlfriends he had ever been serious about. He feels torn between his past with Sarah and whatever future he might have with Vicky, while recognizing that “a life lived purely in the mind, as he seemed to have lived his own, would seem not only without interest but bizarre, unnatural.”
Free to do nothing, a retiree bores himself and others, including the reader.