Brookner (Making Things Better, Jan. 2003, etc.) again chronicles with surgical precision lives distorted by temperament and circumstance.
Elizabeth, now in her 50s, narrates a grim tale about two women, friends since childhood, whose illusions about love have tragic outcomes. Elizabeth and Betsy are quintessential Brookner characters who realize early on that life cannot be fought but only endured. Both are affected by a past that shapes the rest of their lives. Betsy’s mother died young, leaving her to be raised by her father and a maiden aunt. She yearned to belong to a “real” family like Elizabeth’s, which was in reality riven by discord and, eventually, divorce. After school, Elizabeth studies cooking in Paris, where she is miserable and lonely. Back in London, no happier and now bored as well, she marries the much older Digby. Betsy comes home from Paris, where she is living with French radical Daniel, to attend the wedding. Elizabeth observes that her friend is happy and in love, a condition that suits Betsy’s romantic nature. Though both women come of age in the 1960s, neither is able to enjoy that decade’s freedom or opportunities Still bored, Elizabeth next falls into bed with Edmund Fairlie, a colleague of her husband’s; she finds their affair curiously stimulating, but when Digby suddenly dies she breaks it off and retreats into quiet loneliness. Betsy, alone after Daniel is killed in an accident, meets Edmund at Digby’s funeral and is soon in love with him and his entire family. Elizabeth observes at a distance her friend’s doomed liaison with the cool and ruthless Edmund, whose wife is equally cynical. Then Betsy becomes terminally ill, and Elizabeth realizes that both of them are now middle-aged, childless, and alone. Their mistake was to see themselves as lovers rather than as wives, and both have paid for that error with lonely and empty years.
Cool but, as always, deadly accurate.