Emma Roberts seems to have been born to be the heroine of an Anita Brookner novel. Shy, private, lonely, dignified, gifted with a complex inner life, she inhabits a world that seems less like the shrill, hurried, increasingly apocalyptic society in which we unfortunate readers live than the no less plausible territory that Brookner has carved out from literature and that, in the course of a long career (Leaving Home is her twenty-third novel), she has claimed as unmistakably her own.
It's hard to pinpoint how Brookner's world differs from the one we know, since the minute we begin reading her fiction, we lose our awareness of the boundaries that separate us from the people whose often circumscribed lives she is so deftly describing. One distinguishing characteristic is that, in a Brookner novel, human intelligence in general—and female intelligence in particular—is simply a fact of nature, as much a part of our species as appetite or instinct. Her heroines think (perhaps a bit too much), and they are acutely conscious of the intentions, personalities, and foibles of others. Yet they are no more judgmental than the author who has created them; rather, they greet each new acquaintance, friend, or lover with the same hope, curiosity, and interest that a scientist might feel viewing a specimen that promises to confirm a theory or facilitate a discovery. Brookner's women are damsels in mild distress, always hoping to be rescued, but with no intention of giving up their lives and moving—lock, stock, and barrel—into the prince's castle.
Typically, Brookner drops into her main character's life at a critical juncture, a peak or valley that a casual outsider might mistake for a barely perceptible ripple in the general calm. As Leaving Home begins, Emma has decided to depart the London flat of her widowed mother, with whom she lives and to whom she is devoted. Although she feels somewhat stifled by the quiet intensity of her mother's dependence, what soon becomes clear is that Emma is no less dependent, and that her close relation with her mother has served as a convenient excuse to avoid a deeper immersion in what is generally called adult life.
Understandably, Emma opts to minimize the suddenness and depth of her plunge into the currents of a marginally more active existence. She decides to pursue her interest in classical garden design, a field that seems suitably cerebral, impractical, and undramatic. Arriving in Paris to study seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French gardens, she finds her dormitory lodging so spartan and uncomfortable as to make the average convent seem like a luxury hotel. At the library where she does her research, Emma meets a spirited Frenchwoman named Françoise, whose problems with her mother seem at first to mirror Emma's claustrophobic relationship with her own. As their friendship deepens, Emma accepts a series of invitations to visit and observe Françoise and her mother in their beautiful house outside the city. There Emma is drawn into a society—compromised, materialistic, scheming—that eventually enables her to see the logic and value of the choices she has made, without her ever having been fully aware of being offered a choice, or of having chosen.
Brookner's work has been compared to that of Henry James, and it's true they share certain qualities and obsessions: an abiding curiosity about the interior life, about the consequences of hesitation, timidity, and indecision; a concern with what it means to live and be fully alive; and a knack for writing dialogue that seems like thought translated directly into speech, as opposed to the subtext-laden language of grunts, stalls, misunderstandings, and non sequiturs that more ordinarily pass for human conversation. Here, for example, the guileless Emma describes her domestic solitude to a doctor whom she has met at a friend's
Nervous? I have never been nervous. But restless, certainly. I think it's not natural to live alone. I go out as much as I can. Oh, I don't mean that I go to parties, entertainments of that kind. I mean I leave the flat in the morning as if I were going to work. That's what I really like, feeling at one with all the people who are really going to work, even if I'm only going to a reference library. Then I almost automatically leave at the same time as the other workers, the real ones. And I prefer to eat out, although I've got a perfectly good kitchen. Nothing elaborate. Sitting in a café suits me better than sitting at home. Would you like coffee?
What's amazing is how natural and unstilted this sounds, considering the expository nature of a speech that's nearly free of revealing word choices, colloquialisms, or current usages, let alone tics or quirks. Which brings up what may be the most admirable and refreshing thing about Brookner's work—that is, her ability to make us read, with avid interest, about the quiet desperation of modest, unglamorous individuals to whom nothing especially dramatic happens—excepting, of course, the usual things (death, loss, heartbreak, and so forth) that even the most humble of us will likely be obliged to deal with. Of course Brookner's hold on us has a lot do with how well she writes—the unhurried, confident pace of her narrative and her relaxed, unadorned prose style.
What keeps us reading, though, is the dawning realization that all these low-key reflections and events are more resonant and weighty than we might have assumed. As she grasps that both her filial relationship and her essential character are extremely different from those of Françoise—who sells herself for position, security, and money—Emma makes certain discoveries about the world and her own nature that allow her to return to her frugal, mostly content, and quietly productive existence. Meanwhile we have been encouraged to consider what constitutes integrity, what price we are willing to pay for companionship and status, and how we draw the lines that separate and protect us from the world—regardless of whether that world is the one in which we live, or the calmer and more unhurried one to which we are admitted by Brookner.
Francine Prose's most recent novel is A Changed Man (HarperCollins, 2005).