Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

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?

32 comments

  1. This was my first read of Bookner and I found it rather tough – one character was so very harsh, conniving and tough and the other was subservient to the point that you wanted to shake her up. I have however gone on to several other books and enjoyed them but it is always a serious read.

  2. Interesting review, Rachel. I’ve had this on my radar for some time now, waiting to find it in a $1 bin, much like you have, perhaps, and I think I’ll just wait a bit longer until it finds me. Your review and Mystica’s above lead me think that it is well worth the read and maybe a good Brookner to read first and have it lead on to the others. This does sound like such a good character study.

    That is such a lovely cover, isn’t it?

    1. Thanks Penny. Yes, it’s not one I’d rush out and buy, but if it finds you one day, definitely worth picking up to see if it’s your cup of tea. The cover is lovely – it’s what convinced me to buy it!

  3. I really enjoyed reading Hotel du Lac but probably because I saw the TV adaptation first. The actors playing the part were brilliant so reading the novel I could picture each character. Irene Handle was the countess and our ‘anti’heroine was Anna Massey and Denholm Elliot was the gentleman who excited the women. Googie Withers was brilliant as Mrs Pusey. Superb caste brought the story to life.

    1. I’d be really interested in seeing how they managed to make this into a TV adaptation, Christine – I wonder if I can get hold of it online. I’d love to see the actress who played Iris Pusey, especially – she really came alive for me.

    2. Yes, imho the film and the novel complement each other beautifully. Other actors you don’t mention are Julia McKenzie and Patricia Hodge–add the spectacular setting and the result is something I’ve remembered with appreciation for years.

  4. I found this so boring when I read it – I was rather disappointed, as I’d assumed that I would love Brookner… but it wasn’t to be.

    1. Well have you read any others, Simon? I didn’t find this boring, just a little bit lacking in *something*…perhaps I’m too young for Brookner…perhaps we both are!

      1. Haha! Had I been more diplomatic before? Maybe I skirted around the word ‘boring’ back then, but I’m sure I used the word ‘dull’… 😉

        I haven’t read any others, Rachel, but I’ve been assured that they’re all fairly similar, and that if you don’t like one you probably won’t like any.

  5. I must say I love Anita Brookner – I’ve read about 11 of the 20 something books she’s written. I understand however why she doesn’t appeal to everyone. I’ve liked everything I have read by her so far – but some more than others. I woud recommend ‘Look at Me’ and ‘A Closed Eye’ also I recently read and reviewed ‘Lewis Percy’ – which is one of her novels featuring a male protagonist – I really enjoyed it.

    1. I definitely haven’t written her off and I am interested to read her other novels, so I will make a note of those recommendations – thank you! I do think she is a novelist for a certain taste, but I seem to share most of her fans’ tastes so I am sure that it’s just a case of wrong novel, wrong time.

  6. it’s many many years since I read this novel – I know I enjoyed it at the time and since I plan to re-read it shortly as part of my Booker prize reading challenge. your review has me thinking whether my view will have changed over the years…..

    1. I’ll be interested to see if it has! I think some books come to us at the wrong time the first time around, and it takes a second time to really appreciate them. I imagine that might be the case with Hotel du Lac for me!

  7. I liked Hotel du Lac a lot, but there was something about it that I never could put my finger on that kept me at a distance. Maybe it was the out-of-date feeling that you mention or the claustrophobic feeling. I do remember that I liked Edith herself quite a bit.

    1. Yes, I liked Edith too, but there was just a general feeling of ‘there is something not quite right about this book’ that prevented me from wholeheartedly enjoying it. I really do think it feels outdated for its time – it read like something from the 1950s.

  8. I read this when it first came out. It was raved about and a TV film made of it, starring Anna Massey. She was perfect.

    Best of all, Anita B described the lake just as I remember the Lac Léman (never say Lac de Genève when in France!). I worked in Geneva and recall how still and pale everything was in the off-season. Too quiet but it seemed to match my mood.

    I don’t find it at all boring, a beautifully crafted story. Exquisite, as you say, and elegant.

    1. I must get hold of that TV film. It sounds marvellous!

      I’d love to see that Lake. And Switzerland in general. One day.

      I didn’t find it boring either -it was actually rather a page turner, as I wanted to know more about the characters. However the slightly odd feeling of it all being a bit two decades out of its time upset me a little. Perhaps I need to revisit it in a few years and see how I feel then.

  9. Hey R! I discusssed AB with a lecturer once, and she said all her students liked her. It was around the time I did too but also the time when I started not to. I didn’t dislike her as such, just felt after 2 or 3 of them they were all rather similar: dusty librarian type females, impoverished internal lives, asexual, unmarried, unattached.

    What I did enjoy though, really relish, was the elegance of her language. Your review made me realise I don’t actually remember Hotel very well, even with your review! – but I do remember the pleasure I had with her writing.

    I guess what one needs, R, is some variety in one’s reading. Not sure I’d rate AB very highly overall. For a word fix I’d definitely call on her, though not too often. Last one I read – I remember – I decided to leave her for a while though with a plan to return to another for the language.

    1. Yes I have heard that her novels are a bit samey, Bop. Perhaps in the same way Barbara Pym’s novels are though? However Barbara Pym is wittier than Anita Brookner. So I can take more of the same from her anyday.

      The elegance of her prose does make the novel worth reading, definitely, and that’s why I’m happy to try more. I really enjoyed reading her writing.

  10. I will not likely read another Brookner after the thoroughly unpleasant time I had with “Altered States”. I’m glad to finally discover that I’m not the only one who doesn’t respond to her art. ( I would love to have heard the discussion between Simon and my friend Thomas on this one!)

    1. Thoroughly unpleasant! That doesn’t sound good at all! I’d love to have heard Thomas and Simon thrash this one out too – I’m sure sparks were flying!!

  11. I totally agree with your review. It took me a while to understand when the story was setting place in time because I thought the style of writing didn’t match the moment in time it was set. I thought at first it was in the 20’s or even before because the sort of pension hotel reminded me of “a room with a view” (which was well before) where everyone meets in the dining room, ect…but then when she describes the outfits or the fact of going out clubbing, it didn’t match! I really enjoyed the writing but not the story or the characters to whom I couldn’t sympathize. Old fashioned is exactly the word as you said.

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