Brookner has a reputation as a pessimistic writer who depicts single women. Her characters are smart, if lonely, and her observations are often comical. I do not find her pessimistic.
I just reread The Debut, published originally in the UK as A Start in Life. From the beginning I identified with the heroine, though my life is unlike hers. But just look at this opening line: “Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.”
Don’t we readers know what that is like? The heroine, Ruth Weiss, the daughter of a pretty actress, Helen, and the owner of a rare book store, George, expects people to behave like characters in books. She spent her childhood reading Dickens in the company of her strict German grandmother. She wishes she had read Balzac, whom she considers much more realistic. “Why had her nurse not read her a translation of Eugénie Grandet?” Ruth has written a book on Balzac’s women and is at work on the second volume. But her emotional life is barren, except for a year in France when she bloomed in the company of a charming English couple and had an affair with a married middle-aged philologist.
Ruth’s mother, Helen, and her father, George, also play a major role in the novel. Eventually Helen takes to her bed, while a chain-smoking housekeeper, Mrs. Cutler, nominally looks after things. George sells the bookstore, and then begins to spend all his evenings with Mrs. Jacobs, the woman who buys the store from him.
Helen becomes addicted to romantic suspense novels. I very much enjoyed the contrast between Ruth’s and Helen’s reading. While Ruth studies Eugenie Grandet at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, Helen reads a book a day in bed. Mrs. Cutler picks them out at the library.
Helen, fully made up but a bit dingy about the neck, was reading. She had got to the part where the governess, maddened by despair at the rakish ne’er-do-well younger son’s forthcoming engagement to the neighboring squire’s daughter, has rushed out into the night and is about to be discovered sobbing on the moor. Helen knew what was coming. Deserting the glittering lights of the ballroom, ne’er-do-well, his black curls streaming in the wind, finds a tiny fragile figure all but spent with exhaustion. Cradling her roughly in her arms, he realizes that she is his own true love. The book jacket showed the deserted fiancée, in vast crinoline, staring in agony through the window, with a dancing couple and a character in the background. Helen had read it before. Only a month before, in fact, but Mrs. Cutler had other things on her mind these days and did not spend too much time at the library.
Very, very funny! Heavens, I think I’ve read that book, too.