Look at Me by Anita Brookner

Perceptive, engrossing and enigmatic, Look at Me – Anita Brookner’s third novel – is something of a minor masterpiece, probing as it does the inner life of a lonely young woman who experiences a brief period of renaissance, only to be scarred by the torrid experience.

The woman in question is Frances Hinton, a spinster who works in the reference library of a medical research institute, organising and cataloguing images of various mental conditions and abnormalities of human behaviour. Highly analytical and orderly by nature, Frances is a keen observer of her colleagues and visitors to the institute, studying and recording her observations as potential material for short stories, or possibly even a novel. In her spare time, of which there is ample, Frances aspires to be a writer, viewing her writing as a means of expression, of reminding other people that she exists. In short, it is her one way of saying: ‘Look at me. Look at me’.

After work, Frances returns to the large, outmoded flat in Maida Vale she has inherited from her recently-deceased mother. There she is looked after by the family’s elderly maid, a steadfast yet loyal Irish woman by the name of Nancy, who ministers to Frances as if she were still a child, serving her the same bland meal each evening out of habit and routine.

There are times, especially at night, when Frances wonders if this is to be her lot, with Nancy shuffling along the corridor in her worn slippers, carrying the same old-fashioned tray with the same meagre dinner ad infinitum; for while she is used to her own company, Frances longs for a little enjoyment and excitement in her life.

Sometimes I wish it were different. I wish I were beautiful and lazy and spoiled and not to be trusted. I wish, in short, that I had it easier. Sometimes I find myself lying awake in bed, after one of these silent evenings, wondering if this is to be my lot, if this solitude is to last for the rest of my days. Such thoughts sweep me to the edge of panic. For I want more, and I even think I deserve it. I have something to offer. (p. 19) 

Then, just when she is least expecting it, Frances finds herself being drawn into the seductive world of Dr Nick Fraser, a charming yet shallow researcher at the institute, and Alix, his alluring, self-confident wife. In many ways, Nick and Alix appear to be the golden couple – glamorous, bohemian and flamboyant. Almost like the product of some form of natural selection, they attract various devotees and followers, drawing in admirers wherever they go. Naturally, Frances is intrigued by the Frasers’ sophisticated lifestyle, their spontaneity and ease with one another, and she clings to their company in the hope that some of the glamour and vitality will rub off.

Nevertheless, while Frances is fascinated by Nick and Alix, she also recognises that there is something a little repellent about them – more specifically, their need to show off or exhibit their relationship, as if she is there to serve as an audience for their performance, not as a friend or companion. 

What interested me far more, although I also found it repellent, was their intimacy as a married couple. I sensed that it was in this respect that they found my company necessary: they exhibited their marriage to me, while sharing it only with each other. […] I was there because some element in that perfect marriage was deficient, because ritual demonstrations were needed to maintain a level of arousal which they were too complacent, perhaps too spoilt, even too lazy, to supply for themselves, out of their own imagination. I was the beggar at their feast, reassuring them by my very presence that they were richer than I was. Or indeed could ever hope to be. (p. 57) 

Alix, in particular, is rather careless and unfeeling, treating Frances as a kind of toy or plaything for her personal amusement, tossing her aside whenever she is bored. And yet, Frances puts up with Alix’s supposedly good-natured taunts, submitting to being referred to as ‘Little Orphan Fanny’ even though she claims to dislike the use of this pet name.

As her association with the Frasers continues, Frances also becomes involved with James Anstey, another researcher at the institute, who on the surface seems reliable and considerate. As a consequence, they begin to see one another, albeit in a fairly chaste and innocent fashion. Nevertheless, it’s not long before Frances starts to imagine a different kind of future for herself, far away from that of her predecessor at work, the bitter Miss Morpeth, who now faces a relatively bleak retirement; or that of Mrs Halloran, a regular visitor to the library who ekes out her days with the help of substantial quantities of drink. 

Beginnings are so beautiful. I was not in love with James, but now there was something to get up for in the mornings, other than that withering little routine that would eventually transform me into a version of Miss Morpeth, although I had no niece in Australia who might brighten my last years. Nor would I turn into Mrs Halloran, still game, but doomed to hopelessness. No glasses of gin for me, no bottle in the wardrobe of a room in a hotel in South Kensington, no evenings lying on the bed dressed in a housecoat too young and too pink, casting superior horoscopes for those who fear the future. With what thankfulness did I register my deliverance from this dread, which had possessed me for as long as I could remember. (pp. 85-86) 

Naturally, as this an Anita Brookner novel, the aura of happiness that surrounds Frances is somewhat short-lived. All too soon, Alix is berating Frances, accusing her of stringing Nick along and selfishly taking advantage of him – this seems a bit rich coming from Alix, who has to be one of the most heartless, self-absorbed characters you are ever likely to encounter. 

I felt that I was being hurried along a path that I had not originally wanted to take, or at least not with so much dispatch, so much secrecy. I had wanted the company of my friends to sustain my golden enjoyment and my new future, but those friends had turned into spectators, demanding their money’s worth, urging their right to be entertained. And I no longer wanted to be available for that particular function. (p. 105) 

It all ends rather badly, of course, with a shattering dinner at the restaurant frequented by Alix and Nick. Before the night is out, Frances is subjected to another haunting experience as she combs the streets of London in a state of shock, fear and disorientation. 

Look at Me is a very accomplished novel. What impresses me most about it is how cleverly Brookner controls the narrative. There is something incredibly compelling about Frances’ voice, the carefully-constructed reflections and insights into her complex personality. Few writers can capture the acute pain of social isolation and dashed dreams quite like Anita Brookner, and this has to be one of her best, most nuanced explorations of these themes.

While Frances isn’t a classic unreliable narrator as such, there is something slippery and elusive about her story. She frequently contradicts herself or claims to desire things that are pulling in opposite directions. For example, Frances is fatally drawn to the Frasers and their alluring lifestyle; and yet in her heart of hearts, she knows there is something repulsive about them, something unsavoury and possibly dangerous. Moreover, she declares a lack of love for James, and yet she also persists in dreaming of some kind of life with him. There are instances when Frances seems at once both childlike and old before her time – and for someone so analytical in nature she lacks self-awareness, failing to recognise how others perceive her. There are also some oblique references to a previous relationship in her life, a painful, damaging affair, almost certainly with a married man.

As the novel draws to a close, there is a sense that Frances realises she was out of her depth with the Frasers, destined for a brief flirtation with their gilded lives without every truly taking part. Her only consolation is that she now has ample material for her novel, the various characters and scenarios seem fully formed.

I have quoted very extensively from this novel, partly because of the flawless nature of Brookner’s prose – not a word wasted or out of place. I’ll finish with one last passage from the final section, Frances forever the outsider, always looking in. 

I could not even side against them. I was not of their number, that was all. The moment at which I recognized this difference was the ultimate sadness, and I felt all my assumed certainties dropping away from me as if they had been fashionable clothes which I had perhaps tried on in a shop and then regretfully laid aside, as being…not suitable. (p. 181)

Look at Me is published by Penguin Books; my thanks to the publisher for providing a copy.

60 thoughts on “Look at Me by Anita Brookner

  1. Claire 'Word by Word'

    A beautiful review Jacqui, you provide such a clear flavour of the novel and an insightful depiction of the character Frances, it does indeed seem like Anita Brookner has a deft ability at capturing that nuanced pain of isolation and broken dreams. Wonderful choice of quotes to illustrate what you’ve clearly depicted with your own insightful prose.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Claire. It’s a tricky novel to describe, partly because of the portrayal of Frances as a character. Her emotions and behaviours often seem quite contradictory, and yet everything she experiences feels so believable. I guess it’s a reflection of how bruising life can be when we get drawn into the lives of others, giving ourselves over to the whims of people whose motives may be less genuine than our own.

      Reply
  2. Radz Pandit

    This sounds really good Jacqui! I am quite impressed by the quotes, Brookner clearly has a keen eye and it comes across in her writing. I have never read any of her novels, but I am persuaded enough to give her a try. This looks like the perfect one to start with.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s brilliant, so perfectly crafted and observed. Her first two novels are also very good, but this feels like a step up in consistency – it feels more even, if that makes sense. There are elements from the first two novels that I really love, particularly individual scenes or her portraits of certain minor characters. But here, everything feels more together and ‘complete’. Definitely a novel I would recommend to anyone looking to try this author.

      Reply
  3. A Life in Books

    I read this many years ago and I think I was too young to fully appreciate it. The quotes you’ve pulled out are so meticulously crafted in their economy but convey so much, particularly that last one. A fine review, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Susan. Yes, meticulously crafted is bang on. Everything feels so precisely observed, both the details and the emotions. I wonder if she’s an author best appreciated with some experience of life under one’s belt? I read Hotel du Lac many years ago when I was too young and inexperienced to fully understand its nuances and subtleties. Maybe it would seem very different if I were to read it again now!

      Reply
  4. whisperinggums

    I read this a long, long time ago and loved it too. I was a librarian – and although by the time I read it I had a partner, it reminded me of my early twenties when I felt like the boring dull – and lonely – librarian and that sense of suddenly being part of things. So well done.

    I read a lot of Brookner in the late 80s and early 90s and have been wanting to read some more.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Brookner captures that feeling so well, doesn’t she? That sense of the young ingenue being tantalised by the glamorous, exotic lives of the golden people. I think many of us can relate to that situation, either personally or via the experiences of friends and family. It might be an interesting one to re-read at some point, should you be inclined.

      Reply
  5. Grier

    This was one of my top reads last year and I enjoyed revisiting it in your fine review which captures the nuances of Brookner’s story and the complexity of her main character. i especially liked the chapter describing Frances’ nocturnal wandering through the London streets, Brookner at her best.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks so much Grier. I’m so glad to hear that you loved this novel – it seems destined to be one of my standout reads too! That long walk through the ghostly streets of London is so harrowing, isn’t it? You can’t help but feel frightened for Frances, particularly when she seems to be rooted to the spot. An absolutely phenomenal piece of writing on the part of Brookner.

      Reply
  6. Brian Joseph

    Great review as always. The characters and situation Sounds so well crafted. I think that I know people like the Frasers in real life. They do attract their followers. Sometimes those followers and up getting burned.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. Yes, I think we can all relate to this situation in one way or another, even if we haven’t experienced it personally. As you say, it’s easy for someone like Frances to get burned or tossed aside by the likes of the Frasers, whenever they get bored.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Juliana. I think she’s well worth considering! If it’s any help, this is my favourite of her first three novels, the one I would most likely recommend to someone looking to give her a try.

      Reply
  7. heavenali

    Fabulous review. I just checked and it’s more than ten years since I read this book. I remember it as one of the Brookner novels I liked most, though I had forgotten many of the details. I think I mix up some of the Brookner novels I read when I first started reading her books. I do love the way Brookner captures loneliness and disappointed lives.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cheers, Ali. There’s a lot to think about with this novel, mainly because of the depth of characterisation in the portrayal of Frances and her experiences of life. There is something slippery and elusive about it, and yet it also feels very precise. A very intriguing mix.

      Reply
  8. realthog

    You make this sound very tempting. *sigh* I guess I ought to give Brookner another try at some point. The last time was in, er, hurriedly checks Wikipedia, 1984, when she won the Booker with Hotel du Lac.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, that was my first experience of her too, and it wasn’t a resounding success. While I liked the novel well enough, I couldn’t quite see why it had won the Booker. Looking back, I suspect I was simply too young and inexperienced at the time to fully relate to the central character’s experiences. Hopefully things would be a little different now…maybe I should try it again, just to see.

      Reply
  9. Michael

    Excellent review. I’ve never read anything by Anita Brookner, but I’ll have to add this to my list. The characterization sounds nuanced and compelling, and the prose is wonderful.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks! I think this would a great one to try as it feels very representative of her style. It’s also the strongest of her first three novels, so you’d be plumping for one of her best. I do hope she works out for you.

      Reply
  10. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Such an excellent review, Jacqui. I’ve only ever read Hotel du Lac and I was vaguely underwhelmed. Her prose is lovely but I certainly don’t think she’s known for happy endings – not that I want or expect them! I actually have one of her non-fiction books on the shelves, but maybe I should give one of her novels another go!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cheers, Karen. I wasn’t blown away by Hotel du Lac, but then again I was probably too young and inexperienced at the time to really appreciate its subtleties. We’re talking the mid ’80s here, so I would have been in my very early twenties back then, way too foolish to *get* an author like Brookner!

      I do think she shares some traits with Elizabeth Taylor: the well-honed observational skills, the meticulously precise prose, the acute understanding of the pain of loneliness etc. etc. But then again there are differences too, particularly the way she captures a sense or anger or bitterness in her female protagonists. I certainly feel that with her second novel, Providence.

      Reply
      1. kaggsysbookishramblings

        I think I was most definitely the same when I read Hotel du Lac (and I was a similar age) – I think it might be harder to appreciate her at a younger age. And certainly I agree that there is a similarity with Taylor, though I’ve not really read enough Brookner to judge – which is justification for searching out more of her work, I suppose! :D

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s brilliant, isn’t it? So perfectly judged and controlled. I agree, Alix is such a destructive creature, all the more dangerous due to her gregarious nature.

      Reply
  11. Nathanael Webster

    I read this after listening to Backlisted Podcast’s Andy Miller gushing about Anita Brookner over multiple episodes. I read this and Fraud before Backlisted’s episode on Look At Me. The description of Frances’s walk home after the awful last dinner party with Nick, Alix and crew is an incredible piece of writing.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, Andy Miller’s enthusiasm for Brookner’s work is very infectious! I’m a fan of the Backlisted podcast myself. And I agree with you about that horrific walk home through the lonely streets of London. As a piece of writing, it’s remarkably powerful and unsettling, a tour de force.

      Reply
  12. karenvirginiaflaxman

    Thanks for this excellent review, Jacqui. I’ve been a fan of Brookner’s since reading one of her novels in college, and since then have read them all. I can’t say that I have a favorite though. You’ve inspired me to read through them again. (As if I have the time considering all the books on my ever-expanding to-read list! 🙄

    Brookner’s death is a loss to the world of British literature. She’ll be missed.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome; I’m glad you enjoyed it. Luckily I still have several of Brookner’s novels to look forward to, but those I’ve read seem strong enough to stand up to another reading. As you say, she will be sorely missed – a remarkable writer with a perceptive eye for detail.

      Reply
  13. Caroline

    Great review, Jacqui. It sounds wonderful and I just checked, it’s on my piles. I’m very glad. It sounds like Frances wants people to look at her but is actually the one who is doing the watching.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think that’s a very good observation. One of the most fascinating things about this book is how contradictory Frances’ behaviour can seem at times – and yet, it all feels entirely believable. There’s a push-pull, repulsion-attraction thing going on between Frances and the Frasers which is fascinating to observe. I’m so glad you have it in you piles – would love to hear your take on it!

      Reply
  14. BookerTalk

    How true this is” “Few writers can capture the acute pain of social isolation and dashed dreams quite like Anita Brookner” ….. I’ve yet to read a book by her that doesn’t do this

    Reply
  15. buriedinprint

    I can see why you would want to quote so extensively from this volume. What a great writer. (She’s on my MustReadEverything list, but I don’t believe I’ve read this one.) Also, what a lovely cover on your edition. My copy is nowhere near so attractive!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think I’m only just beginning to appreciate her true brilliance, some thirty years after I first read her with Hotel du Lac! Everything about this feels so perfectly crafted, not a word wasted or out of place. Definitely a must-read if she is on your completist list. I love the covers on these new Penguin editions too, especially as they seem to fit the novels so perfectly.

      Reply
  16. Izzy

    I’m a great fan of AB. Haven’t read this one yet but I have a copy. I’ll pick it up as soon as I’ve finished the Cyril Hare I’m currently reading. Strangers was a letdown, but I have a weakness for her first novel, A Start in Life, which, when I read it, triggered a binge-reading of Balzac !

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, yes. I can understand the desire to dive straight into Balzac after reading the novel! She seemed to have a knack for weaving that kind of elements into the fabric of her stories. I think there was something similar in Providence, a nod to the Romantics if my memory serves me correctly. Look at Me is my favourite of the four Brookners I’ve read to date, so I really hope you enjoy it too.

      Reply
  17. Izzy

    In Providence, the main character, Kitty Maule, gives lectures on the Romantic Tradition but the novel at the heart of the story is really Adolphe, by Benjamin Constant (how very appropriate !), “interesting for its conjunction of eighteenth century classicism and Romantic melancholy”.

    Reply
  18. madamebibilophile

    Wonderful review Jacqui. This sounds so powerful and pretty devastating. Like you and Susan, I think I read Brookner when I was too young for her (Hotel du Lac in my 20s). I really need to give her another try.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m glad I went back to her, I must admit. Reading her now in my fifties, it easier to relate to some of the characters, especially the lonely, isolated women who feel crushed by life’s cruelties.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Absolutely. In some ways, I’m quite glad I didn’t read this back in the days of my youth. As you say, it becomes easier to spot someone like Alix when you have a bit of experience under your belt. I knew someone a little like her once – all over you one day and then a complete blank the next. The inconsistency in this person’s behaviour was the hardest thing to bear. You never knew where you were with her.

      Reply
  19. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.