Providence by Anita Brookner

Anita Brooker is another of those writers I’ve been meaning to read or revisit for a while. I liked her Booker Prize-winning novel, Hotel du Lac, when I read it some thirty years ago, but I didn’t love it. That said, my tastes in literature have changed quite substantially since the days of my early twenties when I was young and carefree and too foolish to know any better. Now that I’ve come to appreciate the work of writers such as Elizabeth Taylor, Penelope Fitzgerald and Barbara Pym, I thought it would be a good time to try Brookner again, all the more so given her passing in March of this year. (Julian Barnes wrote a beautiful piece about her for The Guardian, which you can read here.) Anyway, to cut a long intro short, I really loved Providence (Brookner’s second novel, first published in 1982), so much so that I’d like a few more of her early books over the next year or two.

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I suspect there is a reasonable degree of Brookner herself in Kitty Maule, the central character in this short but subtle novel of life’s hopes, expectations and various misfortunes. Kitty, an intelligent, sensitive and presentable young woman in her thirties, lives on her own in a flat near Chelsea. By her own admission, Kitty is somewhat difficult to place, her father having died shortly before she was born, and her mother some three years ago. Fortunately for Kitty, she is not entirely alone in the world. Her French grandmother, the dressmaker Maman Louise, and her grandfather, Vadim, have lived in London ever since they moved to the city shortly after their marriage several decades earlier.

Kitty works as a college tutor in literature, her key area of focus being literature in the Romantic Tradition. For some time she has been harbouring hopes of a budding romance with one of her colleagues, the rather passive and thoughtless Maurice Bishop, one of the key players in her department. Maurice, however, seems rather reluctant to commit. While he is happy to drop round to Kitty’s flat for the occasional dinner of an evening, Maurice demonstrates very little in the way of warmth or affection for her. In many ways, I thought him a rather selfish man in spite of a broken relationship in his past. It turns out that Maurice is still rather emotionally attached to Lucy, the childhood sweetheart whom he had hoped to marry. Alas, Lucy’s faith and calling in life intervened and so the marriage wasn’t to be. At least that’s what Maurice tells Kitty one evening when they are together in her flat. Kitty, for her part, cannot help but wish for something more in her life. She is tired of being admired for her sensible nature and professional expertise. In short, she wants to feel loved and cherished.

But I want more, she thought, blowing her nose resolutely. I do not want to be trustworthy, and safe, and discreet. I do not want to be the one who understands and sympathizes and soothes. I do not want to be reliable, I do not want to do wonders with Professor Redmile’s group, I do not even care what happens to Larter. I do not want to be good at pleasing everybody. I do not even want to be such a good cook, she thought, turning the tap with full force on to a bowl rusted with the stains of her fresh tomato soup. I want to be totally unreasonable, totally unfair, very demanding, and very beautiful. I want to be part of a real family. I want my father to be there and to shoot things. I do not want my grandmother to tell me what to wear. I want to wear jeans and old sweaters belonging to my brother whom of course I do not have. I do not want to spend my life in this rotten little flat. I want wedding present. I want to be half of a recognized couple. I want a future away from this place. I want Maurice. (pp. 59-60)

As the novel unfolds, we gain an insight into the other aspects of Kitty’s life: the occasional visits to her grandparents complete with Maman Louise’s devotion to making dresses and various outfits for her to wear; Kitty’s tutorials on Constant’s novel Adolphe, a text which I feel sure would add another layer to the nature of her relationship with Maurice; and perhaps most significantly, Kitty’s interactions with her two closest friends – her rather annoying but kindly neighbour, Caroline, and her academic colleague and fellow spinster, Pauline. Deep down in her heart of hearts, Kitty knows that she may well end up like Pauline, a lonely woman cut adrift from so many pleasures in life while she cares for her blind mother. On a visit to Pauline’s cottage, Kitty gets a glimpse of what her own life might come to if things don’t change for the better very soon. (This is a long quote, but it is worth reading in full.)

Kitty felt a pang of pain for her. She comes here every night, even in the darkest winter, she said to herself. There is no one for her to talk to. She has to make arrangements for people to come in and see to her mother during the day. And when her mother dies, what will she do? Probably go on living in the same place, even lonelier. And she knows all this. She is too clever not to know. She is what is called a liberated woman, thought Kitty. The kind envied by captive housewives. She felt an urgent need to put her own life into some sort order, to ensure that she did not turn out like Caroline or like Pauline, the one so stupid, the other so intelligent, and both so bereft. She saw her two friends, who would have nothing to say to each other if they should ever meet, as casualties of the same conflict, as losers in the war in which Providence was deemed to play so large a part, and to determine the outcome, for some, not for others. (pp. 80-81)

In her yearning for Maurice, Kitty’s pursuit takes her on a somewhat fruitless trip to France, a period of waiting alone in a guest house while the love of her life takes in the cathedrals of the country. At home in London, she is persuaded to consult a clairvoyant in the hope of discovering some positive news about her potential future and related matters of the heart.

Even though I’m still quite new to Brookner, I strongly suspect that Providence is highly representative of much of her work. It’s a quiet, beautifully observed novel about the disappointments in life, both large and small, the crumbling of those hopes and dreams that many of us hold dear. I felt a great death of empathy and sympathy for Kitty as her somewhat inevitable story played out across the pages of this book. In some ways, it reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor’s A Game of Hide and Seek in its precision and insight into the inner life of a woman whose life remains unfulfilled. The central characterisation is excellent, Kitty in particular. Moreover, there is much warmth and compassion in Brookner’s portrayal of the grandparents, Louise and Vadim. There’s a lovely scene in which Kitty takes the elderly couple out for the afternoon, a trip that warms their hearts.

I loved this book and would recommend it as a suitable point of entry (or re-entry) into Brookner’s work. I’m hoping it will turn out to be a gateway novel for me.

Providence is published by Penguin Books. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

56 thoughts on “Providence by Anita Brookner

  1. madamebibilophile

    Funnily enough, I was just thinking about Brookner the other day – like you, I read Hotel du Lac in my early 20s and I didn’t particularly love it. I’d been thinking I should give her another go, and you’ve completely convinced me of this! The quotes you pulled out are so wonderful. Time for me to go back to Brookner :-)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s funny, isn’t it. Another reader just replied via Twitter to say that she felt the same way about Lac. Timing and lifestage can have such an impact on the way we react to things, and sometimes it’s difficult to isolate these factors when we reflect on our responses to particular books. Anyway, I was really impressed with this one. There’s definitely a lot more to Brookner than just Lac.

      Reply
  2. bookbii

    Great review Jacqui. I love Brookner; she is a sharp but sensitive writer. Perhaps I benefitted from reading Hotel du Lac as an older woman, but I loved it. If you’re looking for another really good Brookner, you can’t go far wrong with A Start in Life which is excellent. Love the new covers from Penguin too, very stylish.
    Good to see you back :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. Yes, sharp and sensitive is a good description. She seems an incisive observer of emotionally bruised women like Kitty. There’s quite a bit of anger and rage just bubbling away under the surface, you can probably see it in that first quote.

      It’s great to hear that you rate A Start in Life. I would have started there but it wasn’t in stock at the time. Luckily I have a copy of it now, so I shall have to go back to it before trying any of her others!

      Reply
      1. bookbii

        Brookner is one of those writers whose on my ‘to explore’ list along with more Muriel Spark, Sarah Moss, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym (it’s a long list!). Hope you enjoy A Start in Life.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I have a similar list, and she’s on mine too! There are about 15 writers (incl. Taylor and Pym) on my notional list right now, but I probably need to whittle it down to a more manageable number. As a slight aside, James Salter is there as well as I just love his prose.

          I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy A Start in Life. It seems to be a favourite among Brookner fans so all the signs are good,

          Reply
  3. BookerTalk

    I will buck the trend here and declare that I read du lac in my early twenties and loved it. However when I read it in my fifties ir resonated even more. So maybe we need to be closer in age to the central character to understand fully?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s an interesting thought. I doubt whether I would have appreciated the subtlety of Elizabeth Taylor’s characterisation had I read her novels in my twenties. Now that I’m in my early fifties, I’m hoping Edith with chime with me a little more than she did all those years ago. I’d like to give that novel another try in the not too distant future.

      Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    This sounds good.

    I am with you on appreciating certain books when older that I would not have when younger.

    Works that center on characters and their interrelationships are things that I very much appreciate now too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I probably say this every time, Brian, but I’m sure you would enjoy these women writers. Taylor, Brookner, Fitzgerald and Pym – they’re all great when it comes to characterisation and observing/capturing social situations. I hope you’ll give them a try at some point. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s good to know. I feel she’s operating in similar territory to Taylor, so I’m adding her to my notional list of writers to explore in depth.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha, no – it’s probably not your cup of tea, John. I’ve been from the blog away for a while, so thanks for dropping by.

      On a completely different note, have you read The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay-Holding? It’s been coming up a lot recently as part of Karen and Simon’s focus on books published in 1947 (the #1947Club) and I was wondering if you would recommend it? (Apologies if I’ve asked you this before, but I have a vague recollection of discussing her with you at some point.)

      Reply
  5. Mary

    I too have read Hotel du Lac which I loved.
    Think this would be a good one to start with as its a while since I have read her books.
    I have a treasured copy of Leaving Home , it was the book my Husband was reading when we met.
    He passed it on to me with his address.
    It’s the only other one I have read.
    Great review Jacqui!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Mary. I’d like to give Lac another try in the next year or two as I feel sure I would appreciate it more now that I’m older (and hopefully a little wiser).

      How lovely to hear about your copy of Leaving Home; I can imagine how much it means to you given the connection to your husband. Isn’t it wonderful when something like that happens? It sounds as though you were destined to meet up!

      I think you would enjoy Providence too; I’d love to hear what you think of it.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, that’s interesting, especially given the fact that you read it again fairly recently. Was there something in particular you found underwhelming/unconvincing or was it the whole story in general? I would be curious to hear more…

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah, interesting. I’m running out of time this morning, so I’ll bookmark your review to read over a coffee a little later. Thanks for the link!

          PS I thought the characterisation was excellent here, so that wasn’t an issue for me. Interestingly, I’ve heard a few people say that Lac feels a little out of step with Brookner’s other early novels. I know of a couple of readers who loved the first three (including Providence) but were a little less enamoured with Lac. I think I’ll revisit Lac at some point once I’ve read A Start in Life and Look at Me. Well shall see…

          Reply
  6. Jonathan

    I still haven’t read Hotel du Lac, so I will probably start with that one; but it’s good to know that Providence is a good read.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’ll be interested to hear what you think of her, Jonathan. Hopefully you’ll take to Lac. One of the things I liked most about this was Brookner’s prose style. It’s quiet and unshowy and yet she still manages to convey the depth of Kitty’s frustrations. I’m looking forward to reading more of her in the future.

      Reply
  7. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    I am not familiar with Brookner; in fact, I’ve never even heard of her. I’m glad you grouped her with Pym, Taylor, and Fitzgerald, so that I have an idea of what might be waiting for her. Based on your review and the comments, I will start with Providence, rather than Hotel du Lac. :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I wonder whether she might be better known in the UK. Maybe her profile isn’t very high in the US and Canada? She won the Booker Prize with Hotel du Lac, but that was thirty years ago. I guess her death earlier this year has sparked a little more interest in her work. Penguin have reissued several of her books in smart new covers so I’m sure that will encourage a few more readers to give her a try. I think you’d like her, TJ – she writes beautifully.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hooray. I’m delighted to hear you are a fan – that cheers me greatly. I’m more than happy for authors to write the same story over and over again as long as they do it well. It certainly worked for Jean Rhys! (Well, I’m thinking of her early novels as opposed to Wide Sargasso Sea which I’ve yet to read).

      Reply
  8. Jane @ Beyond Eden Rock

    What a wonderful review! I started reading Anita Brookner when Hotel du Lac won the Booker and then went back to her earlier books and went on to read all of the others – from the library – as they were published. I’m definitely thinking of doing some re-reading.

    First time around I liked the books that came before Hotel du Lac more than that book, but I liked it enough to look for more of her work and I am pleased that the award drew attention to such a good author who might, so easily, have passed me – and others – by,

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Jane. That’s great to hear. I have a feeling I’ll enjoy her first three books more than Lac, but I’m keen to give the latter another shot. I think it’s number four in the sequence, so I’m going to try to read them in order from now on. Well, I’ll have to go back to her first novel, A Start in Life, to plug that gap, then I can go forward from there.

      I’m glad these books have been reissued by Penguin. There’s nothing like a new set of editions with stylish covers to capture my interest!

      Reply
  9. Scott W

    Hi Jacqui – I liked Hotel du Lac when I read it a few years ago, but that’s the extent of my Brookner familiarity. This sounds like a good if perhaps sobering portrait of a woman attempting to break with what’s been holding her back. I couldn’t squelch a Joni Mitchell line passing through my head while reading your first long quotation above: “There’s a wide, wide world of noble causes and lovely landscapes to discover, but all I really want to do right now is find another lover.”

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hi Scott, it’s nice to see you back in the blogosphere again. I suspect I’ll appreciate Lac a little more second time around. Not that I didn’t like it; it’s just that my reading tastes were probably quite different back then.

      Providence is a sobering book – that’s a good way of describing Kitty’s story. I think it comes through in that second quote, the image of where her life may well be heading if something doesn’t change pretty sharpish. I had to google that Joni Mitchell lyric, just to check which song it comes from. It’s ‘Song for Sharon’ from Hejira. I love the opening track from that album, Coyote – one of my favourite Joni numbers.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh yes, start with the ones you have and see how you go. This reminded me a little of some of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels only there was more frustration here, more rage bubbling up every now and again. I’ll be curious to hear what you make of her.

      Reply
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  12. Eric

    Really interesting to read your thoughts about this. I also read Hotel du Lac many moons ago and it didn’t make a huge impression so haven’t read much more by Brookner. Kitty sounds like the sort of character I’d be really drawn to and interested to read about. Thanks for reminding me I should give Brookner another go!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It was really interesting to return to Brookner after all this time as I think I was just too young and inexperienced to fully appreciate what she was trying to do back then. There was a time when everybody I knew seemed to be reading Lac as it had just won the Booker, but it didn’t quite fly for me and I recall feeling a little underwhelmed. I’ll read it again at some point, just to see if I feel differently thirty years on. (I’m pretty sure I will!)

      Providence would be a good one to pick if you’re thinking of giving her another try at some point. I suppose it’s a novel of crushed hopes and dashed dreams, all set against a backdrop of fusty academia. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

      Reply
  13. Max Cairnduff

    I liked Lac when I read it (back in my 20s), but not so much that I ever read another. Actually, I seem to recall really liking it, and yet I still never read another. Perhaps I had the impression they were all a bit alike, but then that’s true of many authors and yet their books continue to reward.

    Anyway, this sounds excellent. Short but subtle. Quiet and beautifully observed. Quintessential descriptions of Brookner. Noisy novelists often get more attention, but often less impact.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I was really impressed with the subtlety of this, a quality that was probably lost on my younger self back in the days when I read Lac. The sameness or lack of differentiation between her novels is a criticism often levelled at Brookner — but I agree, the fact that she stuck to her familiar territory was no bad thing. It certainly worked for Jean Rhys (and as you say, many other writers too). I’m looking forward to reading more of Brookner now that I’ve discovered her again, maybe another next spring if I can remember to slot it in.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Hotel du Lac, by any chance? That’s her most famous one. You know, it’s funny. I loved this book at the time, but looking back on it now I can see its little flaws and shortcomings more clearly, Not that I’m trying to put you off – it’s a good novel, but the ending seems a little forced and overly dramatic. She’s definitely worth reading that’s for sure, but this might not be her best work. I also have A Start in Life and Look at Me in my piles at home, so I’ll try another later this year.

      Reply
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