The prolific Brookner (Undue Influence, 2000, etc.) marries subject and style in this slight novel about a woman of stoic rectitude who measures her success in life by her ability to adapt and make do.
Zoë grows up in contented isolation with her widowed mother until she is 16, when her mother, perhaps less content, marries the kindly but domineering Simon, who whisks Zoë’s mother away to a villa in southern France. He provides generously for Zoë, but though she is invited to spend as much time as she likes in France, she prefers life in her own flat. Living alone, she graduates from college, begins the perfect bloodless career as researcher, and has an on-again-off-again affair with a not very nice young man. When he dumps her for good, she does not let herself grieve openly. And while she mentions having friends, none are visible or even imaginable. She accepts her lonely life as perfectly adequate. Then her stepfather dies, practically penniless as it turns out, and her mother sinks into a vague, languorous illness. Zoë spends the rest of the story and her meager finances going back and forth between England and France, finalizing the estate and visiting her mother, first in the hospital and then at a rest home run by nuns. She develops a prickly but affection-flecked connection with her mother’s doctor, an episode as close to romantic love as Zoë is likely to get. After her mother inevitably fades away and dies, Zoë finds a compromise between the safe detachment of her London life and the slightly more emotionally charged experience France affords.
While her language is as beautifully precise and insightful as ever, Brookner’s reticence is too much like Zoë’s. She holds her characters, including Zoë, at such a distance that they never become interesting in a novel so understated that it ends up undercooked as well.