A FRIEND FROM ENGLAND

By Anita Brookner

Pantheon. 205 pp. $15.95

THE PROCESS of thinking does not become me . . . Therefore I try to avoid introspection . . . entanglements, confrontations, situations that cannot quickly be resolved, friendships that lead to passion. With my quite interesting work and the affairs that I keep quiet about, I reckon I manage pretty well." So says Rachel, the coolly intelligent narrator of the English writer Anita Brookner's seventh novel. At 32, Rachel owns a piece of a London bookstore, lives alone in a sparsely furnished, white-walled flat and keeps so quiet about those affairs that we never actually see her having one. What Brookner offers instead are the Sunday afternoons Rachel spends visiting her accountant, Oscar Livingstone, and his "daintily houseproud" wife Dorrie.

"Obviously some part of me yearned to become suburban again," she thinks about these trips to their house at Wimbledon, "furnished with voluptuous grandeur in approximations of various styles, predominantly those of several Louis." She enjoys sinking into the comforts of tea and cake and gossip. But the security the Livingstones offer carries a price. As she moves further into their lives she discovers that Oscar and Dorrie not only think of her as a "suitable companion" for their daughter Heather, but that they expect her "to induct Heather into the finer mysteries of life."

Rachel sees herself as having chosen both financial and emotional independence. Heather she sees as one of the "idle women {that} fascinate me," cossetted by her family, supported by material wealth. At 27 she is still too much the good daughter, the sort who calls home every day and comes home every weekend, possessed of a "temperament as undemanding as that of a Victorian matron." Rachel longs for her to show some independence, to demonstrate that she exists in "some kind of a context independent from that of her parents." But when Heather does at last begin to show that independence, Rachel turns against her and becomes the defender of Oscar and Dorrie, determined to drag her back beneath her parents' roof.

LIKE Barbara Pym, to whom she's often compared, Brookner concentrates on single women who have had to learn to make do with less than they expected from life, women who have intelligence and gentility but not much more, spectators to other people's lives. But where Pym's "excellent women" -- the title of her second novel -- measure out their seemingly placid lives with church services and cups of tea, Brookner's have the more aggressive edge suggested by the title of her own third novel, Look at Me (1983). Look at me, though I'm not so noticeable as the people I'm with, the beautiful ones, the happily married ones. See how my irony, my intelligence -- that line about furniture "in approximations of various styles" -- and above all how the way I look at those other people makes me more remarkable than they are.

For like all Brookner's heroines, Rachel has a rich inner life -- and one she's so absorbed by as to make the novel essentially undramatic. Whole chapters seem to go by without Brookner's characters having a conversation with each other. Instead Rachel tells us about their conversations, or muses about scenes she's only been told about herself. It's as if, having ruled other people out of her emotional life, Rachel wants to rule them out of her narrative as well. Look at me, for the story I seem to be telling about the people I watch turns out to be about me after all. At the conclusion of A Friend from England, we learn that Rachel's show of managing "pretty well" is just that. Her apparent choice of independence was no choice of hers, and her insistence on that independence and assurance and experience makes her unable to see both Heather and her own life clearly. Look at me, and note the unreliability of the way I look at others, how little that rich inner life gets you in the end.

A Friend from England is not Brookner's best novel -- that honor still goes to 1984's Hotel du Lac -- but it does have all the slyly noted detail that is her great charm, all the carefully controlled subtlety of observation that is her chief strength. And chief weakness as well, for the end of this novel about the dangers of the over-refined sensibility suffers a bit from that itself. The cool superiority of the tone Rachel takes toward the Livingstones is clearly intended for an ironic reversal, but the scene in which that reversal happens seems too small to provide the climactic moment Brookner wants. Too much we need to know about Rachel seems suppressed, merely hinted at, and so we never quite understand just why she resists Heather's move toward freedom.

Brookner has often, in fact, had problems with the ends of her novels, when the exigencies of a plot force her to shift her concentration from her heroine's inner life and make the character do something. But those inner lives are fascinating enough to keep me looking anyway. The beginning of A Friend from England is as classically elegant as anything Anita Brookner has written and shows why, in its concentration on the limitations of gentility, hers is one of the most characteristically English voices to emerge in the last decade. ::

Michael Gorra teaches English at Smith College.