Family & Friends by Anita Brookner

Central to this novel – Brookner’s fifth – are the Dorns, a wealthy Jewish family living in London during the first half of the 20th century. It’s a quiet, character-driven book, rather European in style – an approach that reflects the family’s origins and mitteleuropean traditions. It also represents something a break from Brookner’s previous novels, each of which featured a lonely unmarried woman at its heart. A widening of scope, so to speak, building on some of the supporting themes from the earlier Providence.

Head of the family is Sofka, a stately matriarch beholden to traditional rituals, a practice typified by her celebrated marzipan cake, usually served with coffee on a Sunday afternoon. Sofka’s husband is no longer alive – a flirtatious man who engaged in various dalliances (and possibly some excessive gambling) prior to his early death several years before.

Frederick is the eldest of Sofka’s children – a natural boulevardier who prefers the captivating company of women to the dull environment of business. It’s a temperament that his mother encourages, reminiscent as it is of her late husband’s salacious charm. At sixteen, young Alfred is already destined to spend the best part of his life managing the family firm; his serious, bookish nature marking him out as the dutiful one, despite any other, more personal aspirations he may be harbouring. Aiding Alfred in this respect is Lautner, the faithful right-hand-man and longstanding employee at the factory; his knowledge and experience prove indispensable at first, although Alfred soon supersedes him in standing.

Completing the family are Sofka’s daughters, Mimi and Betty, who couldn’t be more different from one another if they tried. At seventeen, Mimi is the prettier of the two girls, but she is also the more passive in temperament, favouring the piano over more sociable pursuits. Betty, on the other hand, has her sights set on Paris, preferably as a dancer in the Folies Bergère, a role where she can put her high-spirited, flirtatious nature to evident good use.

I find it entirely appropriate and indeed characteristic that Sofka should have named her sons after kings and emperors and her daughters as if they were characters in a musical comedy. Thus were their roles designated for them. The boys were to conquer, and the girls to flirt. (p. 10)

Brookner uses quite an interesting framing device to help present her narrative, bookending the novel with a pair of wedding photographs, separated by a period of some 30 to 40 years. The opening picture captures a moment in time, possibly in the mid-1920s, showing Sofka, the Dorn children plus various family and friends. An unnamed narrator casts their eye over this initial photograph, pausing to speculate whether any signs of the children’s destinies were detectable at this point – particularly to Sofka. As the remainder of the novel unfolds, we gain insights into the Dorns’ lives, their hopes and dreams, their frustrations and disappointments, all captured in Brookner’s supremely elegant prose.

One aspect that seems to be of interest to Brookner is the question of familial duty vs personal fulfilment. Who will fare better in life? Will it be Frederick, the rather flamboyant womaniser, or Alfred, the family’s dutiful provider? Betty, the outgoing, incorrigible flirt, or Mimi, the accepting, mild-mannered companion? In certain respects, Alfred and Mimi form a natural pair – both remain relatively close to Sofka, both are accepting of compromises in their lives, in the early years at least.

There are similarities too between Frederick and Betty – both are naturally flamboyant and adventurous, characteristics that contribute to their departure from the nest. When Betty is packed off to a Swiss finishing school, she gives Frederick the slip, choosing to remain in Paris to pursue her artistic dream. In short, Betty has arranged to run away with Frank Cariani, a handsome young dancer whom the girls know from London through the piano lessons his father gives to Mimi. When Betty’s disappearance comes to light, Mimi and Alfred – the sensible ones – are swiftly dispatched to Paris to rescue their sister from her foolish adventure. Nevertheless, it is Mimi whom Frank truly prefers – a belief that Mimi clings to as she waits in her hotel room at night, hoping that he will come to claim her in favour of Betty.

Hastily she [Mimi] removes her dress and pulls down her hair; then, in her plain white nightgown, she resumes her seat by the window. Since she can now see nothing she listens all the more intently. She hears the occasional motor car; she hears footsteps in the corridor and the diminishing sound of voices. She seems to hear a clangourous bell, although there are no churches in this district and the bell is probably in her head. The intense darkness envelops her, envelops also her inviolate dream. At some time in that interminable night she lies down on her bed; on her face the smile is tinged with intimations of the most absolute horror. (p. 71)

It’s a quietly devastating scene, one of the most affecting in the book, as the reader realises its significance in shaping Mimi’s destiny. 

Frederick’s escape comes about as the result of his marriage – an event that yields another wedding photograph to add to the family album. The girl in question is Evie, a natural yet unconventional girl whom Sofka finds rather noisy, especially at first.

Who is this person whom Frederik has bought home for coffee and for marzipan cake? She is certainly not a lady and is rather too old to be a girl: Sofka is almost forced to think of her as a woman. Where did he find her? At what party, in what clubhouse on what golf-course or tennis-court did he manage to acquire this all-round, outdoor, noisy, cheery, healthy-looking, loud-voiced, incessantly laughing, large-boned, carelessly dressed person whose name is Eva and who instantly says, ‘Call me Evie’? Why should Sofka call her Evie, even if the woman has unconsciously conformed to Sofka’s family tradition? Why should she call her anything, thinks Sofka… (p. 72)

Nevertheless, Sofka soon warms to her future daughter-in-law, recognising the suitability of the match for Frederick as the wedding arrangements get underway. Following their marriage, the couple depart for the Italian Riviera, where Frederick is to act as General Manager for one of Evie’s father’s hotels – a natural fit for the happy couple as they settle down to their married life.

Of the four siblings in the novel, Mimi is perhaps the one who undergoes the most interesting transformation, her character developing in the most serendipitous of ways. It would be unfair of me to reveal any more about this, other than to say that Mimi ultimately finds a way to shed some of the more self-effacing aspects of her personality, much to her brother Alfred’s disgust.   

While Family & Friends isn’t my favourite Brookner, there’s certainly more than enough for her fans to enjoy here. The prose is elegant, evocative and precise, very much in the style of this author’s other work. Brookner’s characters are always so well-drawn and fully fleshed-out, and yet I didn’t always feel a strong connection with them here. This might be a function of the use of the unnamed narrator, whose relationship to the family we never discover. Nevertheless, this is a highly accomplished book, an exquisitely-painted family saga that shows how our character traits and personalities can shape our ultimate destinies.  

27 thoughts on “Family & Friends by Anita Brookner

  1. Tredynas Days

    It’s ages since I read anything of hers, which is odd, as I liked the two or three I did read (can’t remember now what they were, would have to check my reading diary). I did just order Look at Me for Mrs TD as part of her birthday present, on the basis of an online newspaper review, and your posts on AB. This means I can get to read it when she’s finished it! Cunning, eh? (I did buy her a couple of her own reading choices, among other things)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Look at Me is probably my favourite so far, although I also loved Hotel du Lac on my most recent reading. She’s a very fine writer, for sure.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes! I saw that as well. I’m very excited by the prospect of a Brooker biography, especially one from Hermione Lee. Her Penelope Fitzgerald bio has been on my wishlist for ages.

      Reply
  2. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Ohhhhh, such a treat to read a Brookner review! I immediately ran over to my shelves, to see if Family & Friends survived the great book purge sparked by my move last year (it didn’t. I’m intensely regretful now that I only saved three of AB’s novels: Hotel du Lack; A Friend from England and The Misalliance). As I’ve probably remarked before in one of my comments, I’m quite a fan of AB and, for many years, never missed one of her novels (I did fall away a bit during her mid to late career phase). I remember reading Family shortly after it was published but recall few of the details. I do recall thinking that AB was experimenting a bit with her format, opting for a multiple character family saga over her usual lonely, successful, unsatisfied female protagonist. I also remember feeling vaguely unsatisfied with the novel, although as you say it certainly has much to offer.
    I love your reviews of AB’s novels and hope, for my selfish sake, that you’ve decided to read your way through her oeuvre! Back when I was reading AB very heavily, I did feel somewhat claustrophobic at times with certain novels, wishing that some of her female protagonists would long a bit less for love or be a bit more self-affirming. This, however, was a minor quibble. AB’s a wonderful writer and much of her work is more complex in both theme and technique than many reviewers generally seem to think (in Lewis Percy she even experimented with a male narrator; I didn’t think the novel was altogether successful, but give AB credit). Such views of AB’s work remind me of some of the dismissive attitudes towards Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor and even, back in the day, Jane Austen, i.e., the idea that a woman, writing about women and their lives, is somehow working with “limited” material (thankfully, these attitudes seem to be “evolving”). Anyway, enough of (and my apologies for) the screed! I hope at some point you read “A Friend From England,” which I remember as being one of my own favorites.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Not at all. It’s fascinating to read your comments! I think you’re right in saying that some women writers get unfairly pigeonholed or labelled as writers of ‘domestic’ fiction (the implication being that this is somehow less serious or profound than male authors writing about the complexities of the human condition – which it clearly isn’t). Thankfully, this seems to be less of an issue now than it was back in the 1970s and ’80s, but I’m sure it still affects some writers today. I wonder how many men would read Clare Chambers’ latest novel Small Pleasures, for instance, a novel that seems quite similar in style to Brookner, Elizabeth Taylor and Barbra Pym? Not many, I suspect, even though it’s been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction…

      Anyway, returning to Brookner…yes Family & Friends does seem represent a bit of a departure from the lonely/disaffected heroines depicted in AB’s earlier novels. A broadening out, perhaps, a chance to explore a range of different personalities and the evolution of their destinies. I loved the framing structure of he wedding photographs, such an effective means of capturing specific moments in time as the years slip by…

      And yes, I am hoping to read her remaining work in order, which would mean A Misalliance next followed by A Friend from England. It’s great to hear that the latter is a favourite of yours – that’s very reassuring to know!

      Reply
  3. Dan Friedman

    Lovely review. It’s always exciting for me to come across a knowledgable appreciation of Brookner. Have. you read A Family Romance (I believe published in the US as Dolly)? It’s also an interesting variation on Brookner’s themes, and it led me to re-examine some of my assumptions, my biases really, about some lives being led by close friends and family. I’m delighted to learn about Hermione Lee’s forthcoming biography: any word on publication date?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say! No, I haven’t read A Family Romance, but it’s in my pile of unread Brookners for the future. I’m planning to read them in order of publication going forward, which means it’ll be a while before I get to AFR. That said, it’s always good to have something to look forward to. As for the Hermione Lee biography, it’s a tantalising prospect, isn’t it? No news on publication date yet, but there’s a short piece about it in The Bookseller here:

      https://www.thebookseller.com/news/chatto-signs-lees-biography-anita-brookner-1248734#

      Reply
  4. Jane

    I read Hotel du Lac years ago and then nothing of hers since, your lovely detailed review makes me think that I was probably too young then and would appreciate her much more now, time for another go!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It was only last year that I finally seemed to ‘get’ all the fuss about Hotel du Lac – on my third reading, I think! She’s an author best appreciated once you’ve had some experience of life, especially the kind of disappointments that run through her books…

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    Lovely review. I haven’t read a Brookner for ages, but I remember enjoying this one very much. It is a little different to those novels with unmarried well off women living in London mansion flats.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely. It’s quite different from the main thrust of her other early novels, although I couldn’t help but be reminded of some of the minor characters from Providence. There was a French grandmother, I think – a dressmaker who moved to England along not long after her wedding.

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    What a fascinating review, Jacqui, and this sounds completely unlike I imagine a Brookner book! (I’ve only read the one). I rather flippantly assumed that most centred on the vagaries of contemporary single women, but this is obviously something else. I do intend to try her again one day, but perhaps I won’t start out with this if it’s untypical.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oddly enough, I think you might actually fare better with this one, more so than with the classic ‘textbook’ Brookner novels like Look at Me or Hotel du Lac. While her stories of lonely, disaffected women are so brilliantly observed, I’m not entirely sure that they’re your kind of thing. (Nothing wrong with that, btw – we all have different tastes!) FWIW, Andy Miller is a big fan of Latecomers, which is also somewhat different from Brookner’s other work (or so I believe as I’ve yet to read it myself). It’s about two young German boys who come to England as part of the Kindertransport evacuation at the beginning of the Second World War, ultimately following their lives into adulthood. A very poignant book by all accounts – and not a lonely young woman in sight!

      Reply
  7. gertloveday

    I have read all AB s work over the years, but now all tending to blur, so it is lovely to read you reviews to refresh my memory. Will definitely he looking out for the biography.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Gert. I’m hoping to read them in order of publication going forward, maybe one every six months or so depending on how it goes. The biography sounds great, doesn’t it? And it’s got the full backing of Brookner’s estate, which is good to know.

      Reply
  8. Julé Cunningham

    It could almost be set in Vienna with the marzipan cake and family dynamics – all the characters seem like they have real depth and development, but Mimi looks especially intriguing. I love it when really good writers try something different, even if it doesn’t quite come off, it’s fascinating to see what they do. I haven’t read that much Brookner, but she’s another on the massive wishlist. Look forward to following your journey through her work and reading the great Hermione Lee’s biography.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, Vienna definitely came to mind as I was reading this! One of those wonderful cafes where the serving of coffee and cake is an event in itself. And you’re absolutely right about the character development. Brookner takes time to illustrate how their priorities (and subsequent fortunes) change as they age and develop, which is always interesting to observe.

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

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