A Start in Life by Anita Brookner

Back in September last year, I read an early Anita Brookner, Providence (1982), a novel I loved for its central characterisation and sensitive portrayal of life’s disappointments both large and small. By rights, I should have begun with her debut novel, A Start in Life (1981), but it wasn’t available at the time – hence the decision to go with Providence instead. Having just finished A Start in Life, I would have no hesitation in recommending it as an excellent introduction to Brookner’s style and themes. In some ways, it is a richer novel than Providence, more rounded and fleshed out. I hope to find a place for it in my end-of-year highlights.

brookner-start

As A Start in Life opens, Ruth Weiss, a forty-year-old academic and expert on the women in Balzac’s novels, is looking back on her life, the striking opening lines setting the tone for the story that follows.

Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.

In her thoughtful and academic way, she put it down to her faulty moral education which dictated, through the conflicting but in this one instance united agencies of her mother and father, that she ponder the careers of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, but that she emulate those of David Copperfield and Little Dorrit. (p. 7)

Interestingly, the balance between the relative merits of pursuing a path of virtue vs. one of vice is a central theme in the novel – more on this point a little later in the review.

Winding back to Ruth’s childhood at the family home in West London, the picture is somewhat unconventional and chaotic. Ruth’s mother, Helen, a relatively successful actress (at least at first) is beautiful, spoilt, lazy and self-centred, a high-spirited woman who spares little thought for the future. By contrast, Ruth’s father, George, a dealer in rare books, devotes much of his time and energy to keeping his wife happy, enacting his role as Helen’s charming and attentive husband. Neither of them seems to have much time for Ruth whose care is largely entrusted to George’s mother, the elderly Mrs Weiss, who also shares the family home. Mrs Weiss is under no illusions about the rather feckless nature of her son’s wife. Moreover, she is concerned that Helen and George’s childlike behaviour and ‘facile love-play’ will damage Ruth in some way. As such, she does her best to maintain the household, looking out for the young girl wherever possible.

Unfortunately for Ruth, the situation deteriorates when Mrs Weiss dies, a development that prompts Helen to ‘get a woman in’ to look after the house. The housekeeper in question is Mrs Cutler, ‘a wry, spry widow, quick to take offence’. Mrs Cutler is a wonderful gossipy creation, and there are some priceless scenes as she begins to insert herself into the lives of Helen and George, always mindful of how to play the situation to her full advantage. Ruth, for her part, is pretty much left to her own devices as the household rapidly goes to pot.

As the years slip by, Helen starts to go downhill fairly dramatically. No longer in work, her looks begin to fade along with her previous zest for life, points that become abundantly clear to George when he catches Helen in one of her private moments.

The bones of her shoulders were sharply outlined. Her wedding ring was loose and sometimes she took it off. Her red hair was now a secret between herself and her hairdresser, and on the days when she was due to have it done she found the atmosphere in the streets threatening. Eventually, Mrs Cutler, the Hoover abandoned in the middle of the floor, would take her, leaving George to finish whatever work she had or had not been doing. On their return, both women would pronounce themselves exhausted, and Helen would retire to bed, where she knew she looked her best. George, harassed, would join her for a drink. Helen’s blue eyes, more prominent now in their pronounced sockets, would gaze out of the window with a wistful and ardent expression, her thoughts winging to past triumphs, part travels, past love affairs. George, looking at her in these unguarded moments, would be shocked to see how quickly she had aged. (p. 36)

George, for his part, finds solace in the company of Sally Jacobs, the widow who buys his book business, as a growing dependency develops between the two.

Meanwhile, Ruth begins to carve out a daily routine for herself. By now she is studying literature at one of the London Universities, living at home again after a brief and somewhat disastrous attempt to break away on her own in a room near the King’s Road – her dedicated attempt to woo an attractive fellow student, Richard, with a romantic dinner for two having ended in crushing disappointment. There are lectures in the morning, tutorials in the afternoon, library work in the evenings. In some ways, the relative safety/security of the University environment feels like more of a home to Ruth than her family residence in Oakwood Court. It’s a lonely existence, but it could be worse. Nevertheless, as Ruth reflects on her studies of Balzac, she begins to question whether there is more to life. Is the pursuit of a life of goodness and virtue the best path to the discovery of true love? Surely a little Balzacian opportunism wouldn’t go amiss for Ruth too?

She knew that she was capable of being alone and doing her work – that that might in fact be her true path in life, or perhaps the one for which she was best fitted – but was she not allowed to have a little more? Must she only do one thing and do it all the time? Or was the random factor, the chance disposition, so often enjoyed by Balzac, nearer to reality? She was aware that writing her dissertation on vice and virtue was an easier proposition than working it out in real life. Such matters can more easily be appraised when they are dead and gone. (p. 136)

Once again, Ruth attempts to add a little freedom, romance and excitement to her days. She secures a scholarship for a year in Paris to further her studies in Balzac, with the ultimate intention of visiting some of the places depicted in his novels. During her time in the capital, Ruth begins to live a little, albeit relatively briefly. She meets a bohemian English couple who take her under their wing, encouraging her to improve her image with a smart new haircut and fashionable clothes. Before long, Ruth falls for a literature professor, a married man who treats her kindly, even though their time together is somewhat limited. She longs for an opportunity to be alone with him in a private place, almost a hope against hope given her previous attempt at romance as a student in London. (I love this next quote; it feels like vintage Brooker.)

If only she could sit with him in a room, quietly, talking. If only she could wait for him in some place of her own, hear his footsteps approaching. If she could cook for him, make him comfortable, make him laugh. More than that, she knew, she could not expect. Can anyone? She still measured her efforts and her experience against her disastrous failure with Richard, remembering her expectations and the reality that had destroyed them. That reality had made her wary. Disappointment was now built into any hope she might have had left. But so far Duplessis had not disappointed her. (p. 130)

I’ll leave it there with the plot, save to say that Ruth never quite manages to break free from the demands of her parents as a mercy call from home cuts short her time in Paris.

A Start in Life is a really terrific debut, beautifully written and brilliantly observed. The characterisation is superb – not just in the creation of Ruth, but the other leading players too. In many ways, the novel explores the classic Anita Brookner territory of fading hopes and dashed dreams as happiness and fulfilment remain somewhat out of reach. I strongly suspect there is a lot of Brookner herself in the character of Ruth Weiss, a rather fragile woman who seems destined to experience significant loneliness and disappointment in her life. In many respects, Ruth is constrained by the demands of those around her, frequently bending to the will of others to the detriment of her own desires. There appear to be some parallels between Ruth’s situation and that of Balzac’s heroine, Eugénie Grandet, so much so that I am sure a familiarity with Balzac’s work (and this book in particular) would bring another dimension to the experience of reading of A Start in Life.

Before I finish, a few words on the novel’s tone. While Ruth’s story is shot through with a delicate sense of sadness, this is beautifully balanced by Brookner’s dry wit and keen eye for a humorous situation. (In this respect, I was reminded of some of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, particularly The Soul of Kindness which I reviewed back in January.) There are some marvellous scenes involving Helen, George and their housekeeper Mrs Cutler, a woman who always seems to have a cigarette on the go. I’ll finish with a quote which I hope captures something of this tone. Mrs Cutler is imagining her future life running a care home with Leslie Dunlop, a man she has met through a dating agency.

She saw herself in the Lurex two-piece she had bought in the sales, being absolutely charming to some old dear while her husband hovered cheerily in the background. ‘My husband will take care of it,’ she would say. ‘You will have to speak to my husband about that.’ They would make an ideal pair. After all, if she could look after Helen, she could look after a few more. And they had nurses, didn’t they? She sent Leslie back to Folkestone with instructions to make enquiries at all likely establishments along the coast. Then she nipped back to the Black Lion and had two gins to steady her nerves after her momentous afternoon. (p. 114)

A Start in Life is published by Penguin Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

56 thoughts on “A Start in Life by Anita Brookner

  1. Brian Joseph

    Superb review as always Jacqui.

    I tend to like it when characters in fiction are themselves connected to literature and books. There is usually some meaning there. With that, I have not read Balzac at all and I might want to do so before reading this.

    Either way it sounds very good.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. If that’s the case then I think you would enjoy Anita Brookner very much – well, certainly her first two novels as they both feature women who are experts in classical literature. Either way, she’s definitely worthy of consideration.

      Reply
  2. Caroline

    I once wanted to write a PhD on Balzac, so a heroine who studies Balzac’s women is already a winner. But apart from that this does sound incredibly well done and I’m amazed it was her first.
    I wonder why she returned to the theme of disappointment so much. Must be somewhat autobiographical. I wish I didn’t already own five of her novels or I would have started with this one. What strikes me in yours and Guy’s review is the mix. Melancholy and wit.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, wow – what a coincidence re the Balzac! It’s incredibly impressive for a debut – a little like Elizabeth Taylor’s At Mrs Lippincote’s, in fact. I fully suspect these novels are somewhat autobiographical. It certainly feels as though she is writing these emotions from her own personal experience. Crushing disappointments, dashed dreams, fading hopes and the like – it all feels so terribly real.

      The combination of the sadness and humour is a real skill, one that Brookner seems to share with Elizabeth Taylor – maybe Penelope Fitzgerald, too. It’s very hard to pull off, but I think she nails it here.

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review as always Jacqui. My experience of Brookner is limited to Hotel du Lac which I confess underwhelmed me a little when I re-read it. But I’ve read so much good about her other books that I think I should give her another chance – this sounds like it might be a good place to start!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think it would be a great place to re-start. Like you, I was a little underwhelmed by Hotel du Lac when I read it back in the day. That said, I probably picked it up at the wrong stage in my life as I was in my early twenties at the time (which may have been too young for this book). It’s a novel I would really like to revisit at some point in the next few years – I feel I would be much better placed to appreciate its subtleties now, especially given the fact that my tastes in literature have changed so much over the past thirty years.

      Reply
  4. bookbii

    Lovely review Jacqui. I read A Start in Life last year and enjoyed it immensely. As you mention it has a dry wit which tempers the melancholy and makes it both memorable and very readable. I agree that some knowledge of Balzac likely adds a dimension to the work.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda, I really feel as though I ought to read some Balzac now! Have you read Eugénie Grandet by any chance? I’m sure a familiarity with that book would add a whole new level of understanding to the reading of A Start in Life.

      Reply
      1. bookbii

        I haven’t, in fact I haven’t read any Balzac though I have a copy of Old Goriot in my library. I must get around to him, and then, perhaps, read A Start in Life again.

        Reply
  5. Max Cairnduff

    It sounds marvellous, but my relative ignorance of Balzac (I’ve read a bunch of his short stories but not the longer works) could I fear prove an impediment. I should reread Hotel du Lac, which I still have, first I think then consider where next to go with Brookner.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m sure a knowledge of Balzac would help with the interpretation of the nuances in this one. Nevertheless, I still got a lot out of it without ever having read him, not even his short stories – a gap a really ought to plug at some point. A re-read of Hotel du Lac sounds like a great idea – I’m planning to do the same myself at some point in the next year or two as it’s been a good thirty years since I first read it.

      If you get a chance, do take a look at my review of Elizabeth Taylor’s The Soul of Kindness as I think you’d like it a lot. (I wrote about it in January, so you might have been away on holiday at the holiday at the time.) It’s probably my joint favourite Taylor so far along with Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont – plus it shares that wonderful blend of melancholy and dry humour that works so well here.

      Reply
      1. Max Cairnduff

        I was on holiday then. When I got back I had a fairly hefty backlog of posts which it’s in (and not all of which I’ll get to, but I will that one).

        It sounds like it does the references thing well. Ideally a book should stand alone so that if you read it without knowledge of say Balzac it holds up well but if you have that knowledge you get something extra. I think if a book requires that (for example) you know Finnegan’s Wake really well it risks becoming a bit parasitic.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          That’s great. I look forward to your thoughts on it.

          I think it does work on that level as I felt I got a sense of what she was trying to imply by referencing Eugenie Grandet even though I’m not familiar with the novel itself (or anything else by Balzac come to that). That said, I’m quite tempted to read it just to see how it adds to my understanding. I get the feeling that Eugenie is quite atypical as far as Balzac’s heroines are concerned – at least that’s one of things I inferred from Brookner’s nods to the novel.

          Reply
  6. Scott W

    Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.

    Forty?! Such a late bloomer. I knew that my life would be ruined by literature by the time I was about 14.

    Reply
  7. Tredynas Days

    Like others here I know H du Lac & a couple of others, but found she was revisiting similar territory. That was a long time ago, though, & as always these things are relative. No doubt I’d find her different now, as you suggest. Interesting isn’t it how we respond to things so differently in different contexts & times. I don’t think a young person is incapable of appreciating a novel about old people & vv.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I’ve heard others mention something similar – the view that she writes the ‘same’ book over and and over again with little variation from one to the next. I haven’t read enough of her work to form my own opinion on that, but I’m sure it will come over time. Mind you, it is true to say that there are some common themes across the first two novels as they are clearly related in many ways.

      You’re right to raise that final point about the appreciation of protagonists of a different age – I agree. It’s just that I think it can be a little more challenging at times especially if you’re young and lacking in certain types of experience in life.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, absolutely. I’m glad you like the quotes. I wonder how long it took her to write these novels as they feel very finely honed, worked over with great care and attention…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I believe Penguin have republished her complete backlist in smart new editions. I have a feeling this one was originally published under a different title in some markets: The Debut.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I’ll be very interested to hear what you think of the ending in this novel. One element of the closing section felt a little unnecessary and tacked on to me – a very minor criticism in the scheme of things, especially given the strength of the rest of the book. Nevertheless, it made me wonder if Brookner was still trying to decide how best to ‘close’ these stories. (I wasn’t entirely convinced by the tone of the ending in Providence, her second novel.) As I say, a fairly small point at this stage in her career.

          Reply
  8. J. C. Greenway

    Like many others here I’ve just read Hotel du Lac and really enjoyed it so will have to give this one a try too. She writes women of all ages and stages of life so well.
    (Ruined by literature, aren’t we all dear, aren’t we all…)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s a good observation on her ability to write woman of various ages and different stages of life. It’s something I’ve picked up from reading other bloggers’ reviews of her work, especially some of her later novels featuring older women. I’ll have to give a few of them a try for myself.

      Reply
  9. MarinaSofia

    This sounds rather compelling and melancholy with wit is something I just can’t get enough of. As for writing the same novel over and over again, there are quite a few writers who do that, Patrick Modiano for one. I still love reading some of them (perhaps not all of them in one go, though).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d really like this one, Marina. Have you read her in the past? Hotel du Lac, maybe? That’s a good point about Modiano revisiting the same themes over and over again – very successfully too by all accounts. Like you, I wouldn’t want read too many of his novellas in quick succession. It’s probably one of the reasons why I usually try to leave a gap of 6-12 months between books by the same author – at least it minimises the risk of overkill.

      Reply
      1. MarinaSofia

        Mais bien sur I read Hotel du Lac – it’s the one we always used to give to any visitors coming to Geneva/Lausanne area. I’d also read some of her others, although I didn’t enjoy them as much when I was younger and more optimistic.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          How appropriate! You know it’s funny – I liked Hotel du Lac when I read it some thirty years ago, but I didn’t love it. Maybe I’ll feel differently about it now that I’m older and more experienced in different aspects of life…we’ll see.

          Reply
  10. Elena

    You just got me at ” a forty-year-old academic and expert on the women in Balzac’s novels”, Jacqui. And since I judge book by their covers, this one is a major win-win!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s great to hear, Elena – I doubt you’ll be disappointed. Isn’t the cover just wonderful? So smart and stylish, just like Brookner herself. :)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali. It definitely feels as though she was on her A-game from the word go. Oh yes, do go back to reading Brookner again – I would love to hear more about some of her other novels.

      Reply
  11. buriedinprint

    This is one of my favourites too. So delightfully bookish! She is another of my MustReadEverything authors. You seem to be dabbling in them deliberately (Taylor and Pym having made recent appearances in your stack as well). Will you be trying Barbara Comyns next? *grins* Kidding.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m glad you liked it too. It’s interesting to see how she continues with that literary theme in Providence – there’s a clear connection between the two, so much so that I’m wondering if the same might be true of her third novel, Look At Me.

      Funny you should mention Barbara Comyns as I do have a couple of her books in my TBR. Our Spoons Came fro Woolworths is on my Classics Club list, so it’s bound to turn up here at some point in the future. :)

      Reply
  12. banff1972

    I had to skim this review because from the beginning, especially your quoting of the novel’s first line, I knew I was going to have to read this. And I’m pretty sure I have a copy too. Maybe I’ll go see right now if I can find it…

    Reply
      1. banff1972

        I read a couple when I was younger but as you say above I think you might need to be older to appreciate her. I tried one two years ago but stalled out. I did, however, find this book last night and lived the first two chapters. Had to stop as it was one in the morning…

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Hey, that’s great! I can’t wait to hear what you think of it. I think she’s in a similar space to Elizabeth Taylor, and yet I can see some differences between these writers too. There seems to be a deeper sense of life’s disappointment with Brookner, maybe more rage and disillusionment (certainly in Providence). I might try Look at Me next (well, in about 6 month’s time) as it seems to be a favourite among Brookner aficionados.

          Reply
  13. Pingback: My Reading List for The Classics Club | JacquiWine's Journal

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