Last summer, while I was still living in New York, Thomas hosted International Anita Brookner Day on his blog. I didn’t take part, but I was intrigued by the reviews I read and made a mental note to look out for her titles in future. A couple of weeks later, on a stiflingly muggy, thunderous evening, I was walking from Union Square over to 1st Avenue to catch my bus back to Harlem when I stumbled across a thrift store on a side street. The books were all $1, so I quickly scanned the shelves, looking for treasure. I spotted a pretty hardcover; Hotel du Lac, by Anita Brookner. How timely! I checked my purse; yes, there was a crumpled dollar bill inside. A sign! I dusted it off and took it to the desk, handing over my dollar just as the heavens opened outside. I shoved Anita into my bag, leapt out into the street, and ran with my friend, laughing to the bus stop as the rain poured down, bouncing off the pavement and soaking us to the skin. Typically, as soon as we got to the bus stop, the rain storm passed. I never ceased to be amazed at how sudden and violent New York rain storms were; and also, how they never ‘cleared the air’, but made it even hotter, causing the sizzling sidewalks to emit steam and increasing the already unbearable humidity. Needless to say, even after all that trouble to get hold of a copy, I never managed to get around to reading Hotel du Lac in New York. When I opened it up on a Greek beach a couple of weeks ago, I smiled at the slight damp stains at the corners and at the thrift store bookmark I had left inside. I’m glad I waited to read it; it was lovely to be reminded about that rainstorm, that night, that magical summer. It’s hard to believe that it was a year ago already.
Anyway, I digress. To the book! It’s probably telling that I found it more pleasurable for the memories it invoked of where I bought it than for the actual story, but that’s not to say that I thought it a bad book. Far from it, actually. Edith Hope is a mildly successful author of romance novels. In her mid thirties, she has a passing resemblance to a dowdy Virginia Woolf and lives a seemingly colourless existence that revolves around her cats and her courtyard garden. However, this is far from the truth; Edith has secretly been up to no good, for quite some time. After committing a terrible faux pas- left unexplained until the middle of the novel – her friend has sent her packing to a luxurious yet old fashioned hotel on a Swiss lake for a month while she ‘comes to her senses’. Edith arrives at the hotel just as it is about to close for the season. It is unostentatiously palatial; a relic of a former age, the owners refuse to acknowledge that its heyday has passed and only accept guests ‘on recommendation’. As the summer is almost over, the clientele has reduced to a small band of discerning regulars; the rich and glamorous widow Iris Pusey and her devoted daughter Jennifer, the painfully thin, beautiful Lady Monica and her dog, and Madame de Bonneuil, an aged countess who has been kicked out of her home by her selfish son’s wife. Edith gradually gets drawn into all of their lives, finding herself surprised at what she discovers under their respectable exteriors. The self absorbed Puseys are not as young as they look, and the love they have for one another is not quite as sweet as it initially appears. Lady Monica’s disdain hides a desperate unhappiness, and the crumpled remnants of Madame de Bonneuil hide a broken heart.
All of these women teach Edith something about what it is to be a woman, and make her reflect on her own life, the mistakes she has made, and what she wants for the future. They are all trapped in the hotel, pinned there, in a way, by their state as dependant women. Their lives are dictated by the men that are or were their partners, and they have no real independent existence. The atmosphere is stifling; the boredom and frustration palpable. There is nothing to do, nothing to see – the holidaymakers have gone, the shops are shut; normal life has resumed for the locals, leaving the remaining guests at the hotel stuck in a strange limbo. When Mr Neville appears on the scene, there is a flurry of activity, of excitement; he cuts through the sickly sweet feminine atmosphere of the hotel, and soon sets about ingratiating himself with his fellow guests. However, he is not what he seems either, and he will unexpectedly force Edith into becoming the active rather than passive agent of her own life.
Not a lot happens in this novel; it is character rather than plot led. Brookner’s powers of observation are excellent, and her prose is intelligent, insightful, well crafted and stylish. It was somewhat reminiscent of Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, with its elegiac, rather depressing undertone, and claustrophobic setting. I loved the characters, especially the Puseys; their somewhat sinister relationship was absolutely fascinating to watch unfold on the pages. However, overall, it left a bit of an odd taste in my mouth. The novel felt a little bit off centre, somehow. It was like reading a second rate Barbara Pym novel, but one set thirty years too late. Like Hotel du Lac itself, everything about the characters and plot feels out dated, old fashioned, tired. The characters don’t ring true to their time period, and there was a mean spirited undertone that I found disconcerting. It is certainly not a pleasant novel, and the limited and reductive portrayal of women’s lives left me feeling cold. However, Brookner’s writing is brilliant, and there are many passages and sentences I re-read with delight, in awe of how she had chosen just the most perfect blend of exquisite words to bring a character or scene to life. Hotel du Lac might not have quite come together for me, but I certainly haven’t been put off Brookner as a novelist. I’m keen to try something else; any suggestions?