One Is the Loneliest Number
By Anita Brookner
Random House. 212 pp. $23.95
Some books are so wonderful that they give us the added pleasure of pressing them into friends' hands and insisting they read them, too. Sadly, the devoted fans of Anita Brookner's flawless novels don't know that pleasure. What, after all, would we say? "This story about inconsolable loneliness made me think of you -- enjoy!" She's published a novel almost every year since 1981, but the range of her audience seems as restricted as her themes. With Henry David Thoreau, she might wryly observe, "I have traveled much in Concord," having explored the whole universe in the narrow confines of a reserved, lonely heart.
Leaving Home , her new novel, does nothing to expand that realm, but those of us who love the exquisite agony of her scrutiny wouldn't have it any other way. This time around, her depressed but carefully behaved heroine is Emma Roberts, a graduate student listlessly working on a dissertation about 17th-century European gardens. Like so many despondent graduate students, she spends her days tinkering "with footnotes in an attempt to convince myself that this was a useful activity." At 26, Emma still lives at home with her mother, doesn't know what she's going to do with her life and has no promising romantic prospects.
Yes, in one sense, this is just another slacker novel -- which is weirdly hip from the 77-year-old retired art professor, but Brookner's style is so elegant and her plotting so sophisticated that you might as well call "The Turn of the Screw" just another ghost story. Besides, her protagonists never indulge in the kind of ironic self-pity that marks the slacker novel, and, despite suffering from depression so radiant that they could star in Prozac commercials, they never perceive themselves as depressed. That alone may be what gives her novels such a strange, timeless quality: They're full of sad people who have remained somehow oblivious to the age of therapy or psychotropics.
At the start of Leaving Home , Emma Roberts knows that she must break away from her mother or she will be "doomed to follow" her into a life of undisturbed stillness and solitude. It's not that Emma doesn't love her mother, a perfectly pleasant if colorless woman who encourages her daughter and makes no claims on her time or affection. But Emma is certain that "leaving home had become a necessity, although a painful one, if ever I were to find freedom." Her graduate work provides a perfectly respectable opportunity to escape, although 17th-century gardens seem a very short distance from what she wants to leave behind: "It was the classical code -- reticence, sobriety, order -- that attracted me, and I thought it would be valuable to see these qualities laid out in observable form."
She finally manages to work up the will to travel to Paris, but the soil of her mind is so dry that no wild oats can germinate. "It seemed that there was nowhere to go, and I felt as if I were in the sort of prison in which natural boundaries were observed but not indulged. I spent the rest of the day wondering how soon I could leave. This was far from the emancipation I had promised myself, and it was with a feeling of despair, which has stayed with me to this day, that I realized that I had embarked on a course of action which was in fact too difficult for me."
Brookner turns that regret a thousand different ways over the pages of this short, strangely effective novel. When her mother dies suddenly, the conditions seem ripe to finally push Emma from the nest, but the loss only increases her sense of displacement, not freedom, as she wanders back and forth between London and Paris, feeling at home nowhere. "Here was exile," she says, "but perhaps reality, a reality with which I should have to come to terms."
Desperate for companionship, she allows herself to become a kind of prop in a bossy friend's conflict with her own mother, and she pursues only the most inert men who won't violate the sense of isolation she claims to abhor. There's humor here, even social comedy -- Emma's futile search for an appropriate dress reads like Henry James channeling Bridget Jones -- but Brookner's wit is so brittle that it's surprising the pages don't shatter when turned.
All of these activities, fragmentary and brief, are just eddies in the relentless flow of Emma's introspection as she realizes, "I was now condemned to adulthood." Nothing can explain the attraction of this almost plotless novel except the extraordinary precision of Brookner's analysis -- her ability, again and again, to capture our common but private anxieties in a painful demonstration of self-reliance: "My longings were those of an adolescent," Emma says, "to be taken care of, to be nurtured, to be loved. All this I managed to conceal, as one should. It is an error to confess such needs." But it's a wonder to expose them with such cutting clarity.
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.