Latest Brookner novel follows a character in search of herself

The Misalliance, by Anita Brookner. New York: Pantheon. 191 pp. $14.95. ``The Misalliance,'' Anita Brookner's sixth work of fiction, marks a welcome return (following a brief departure in her previous novel, a kind of group portrait called ``Family and Friends'') to her usual method of building the story around the intensely perceived experience of a single character, a method that gives play to her talent for delineating the complexities of consciousness.

The heroine this time is Blanche Vernon: intelligent, critical, and self-critical, she learned to be undemanding at her mother's knee.

Accustomed to being ordered about by her frivolous, imperious parent, Blanche was rescued from docile daughterhood by a wealthy, cultivated man, who not only valued her qualities, but, as her husband, encouraged her to refine her talent for tasteful restraint into a polished veneer of elegant self-possession.

As the story opens, however, he has deserted the admirable Blanche for a childish, vulgar, extremely demonstrative woman. Blanche struggles to take her loss in stride, even as she suffers inwardly. She tries to come to terms with what she has learned from sad experience: The noisiness of emotionally demanding, selfish people is wrongly perceived as ``passion'' and ``excitement,'' when in truth it is shallow sound and fury signifying nothing. The self-denying are ``expected'' to suffer quietly, while the selfish not only grab what they want but win the world's sympathy for being bold enough to act out their desires. Such is the tenor of Blanche's bitter meditations.

Blanche's profound self-consciousness and her capacity for sustained introspection, moral analysis, and anxious comparisons of herself with other women readily identify her as a classic Anita Brookner heroine. What distinguishes her - and what makes this novel especially interesting - indeed, heartening - to readers who've been following the course of Brookner's coolly realistic, but nonetheless romantic quest - is that Blanche is the most constructively self-critical woman Brookner has portrayed thus far.

Without revealing the end, suffice it to say that Blanche finds a way beyond the artificial anthitheses of egoism and altruism, self-assertion and self-denial, and that her newly enlightened virtue is suitably rewarded.

Brookner's writing is, as ever, exquisite. The sounds of the words and the rhythms of the sentences are as melodic as poetry, and each word has been chosen and placed with a precise understanding of its weight and significance. The result is a novel that combines the cool clarity of classicism with the heightened sensitivity of romanticism.

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