This post was edited and republished into my blog’s original timeline from my old blog lost posts archive.
16 July 2011, will be Anita Brookner’s 83rd birthday, and has been renamed International Anita Brookner Day by Thomas at Hogglestock and Simon at Savidge Reads. To celebrate this author, they have set up the IABD Website with a competition to win AB books for those submitting reviews by July 16. Naturally, I decided to join in the fun, especially as I haven’t read a book by her for some years. The book I chose to read from my TBR piles was …
The Rules of Engagement by Anita Brookner
This, her 22nd novel published in 2003, is typical Brookner with all her trademark features. The story is about two women who meet at school but stay in touch throughout their lives. The two girls are both called Elizabeth. They’re both only children, Elizabeth’s parents divorced, Betsy’s died and she then lived with her aunt. Betsy is the pretty one, and when they both spend some time in Paris, it’s Betsy that falls passionately in love; Elizabeth uses her time there coming to terms with being on her own.
Later back in England, Elizabeth marries Digby, a widower many years her senior. Theirs is a comfortable marriage – no surprises, no passion, no children either. Elizabeth is happy with this, but then she embarks on an affair with one of Digby’s friends – this relationship is one of convenience, physical needs are satisfied, but Elizabeth gradually begins to fall for Edmund. Then Betsy comes back into her life, and things are gradually turned upside down – and Betsy’s life will continue to impact on her oldest friend’s for years to come.
If you didn’t know the book I was describing was by Brookner, from the description above, you might guess it was by Joanna Trollope say with some complicated entanglements amongst the middle classes. But it’s not. Through the voice of Elizabeth, Brookner tells the story of an ordinary woman disappointed with life and love, ultimately content with her own company, but somehow deep down wishing she’d had the wide-eyed innocence of her friend to take her down another path. Elizabeth meditates at length on her life, relationships and friendships, decisions taken, and things not done to keep life unruffled.
This is where I had a problem with this book. In reality nothing much does happen – at least not to Elizabeth. It all happens to Betsy, but Elizabeth is telling the story, so we don’t know the half of it. Instead, we’re subjected to Elizabeth’s introspection about life, the universe and everything. Characters’ actions were described in intricate detail in this book, however I felt I never really got under Elizabeth’s skin, despite having over 250 pages to get to know her. I wish I’d been able to write more enthusiastically about this novel, for I have enjoyed the others I have read, but I feel that The Rules of Engagement is one for Brookner completists, first time readers should probably start elsewhere. (6.5/10)
Source: Own copy.
Anita Brookner, The Rules of Engagement, 2003. Penguin paperback, 256 pages.