If there were a science to novel writing, Anita Brookner would be a literary microbiologist. No one's lens is more finely calibrated than hers. An artistic descendent of Henry James, she creates characters so precisely that her novels could serve as training manuals in psychological observation. Indeed, it's easy to imagine her writing in a white lab coat. Her analysis displays a kind of scientific precision that's always arresting and sometimes even witty, the way certain expert documentaries manage to make arcane subjects fascinating.
"Falling Slowly," Brookner's 18th novel, examines the carefully regulated lives of Miriam and Beatrice Sharpe, two middle-aged sisters in London who "presented a picture of maidenly rectitude." Modestly attractive, bright, and financially secure, both sisters pursue their specialties with proficiency but not any particular enthusiasm.
Beatrice struggles to maintain her youth, works sporadically as an accompanist, and reads romantic novels. "What was attractive about her," the narrator notes with typical distance, "was not her appearance but her disposability." Beatrice has spent her life waiting demurely for the right "pair of broad shoulders, of strong arms to which she might entrust her evident womanliness." Determined to wait for love, for a true romantic hero, she finds herself still alone when other women are sending their children off to college. "I don't want to rely on myself all the time," she laments, but except for her sister, no one else has met the test.
Indeed, Miriam is all too willing to sacrifice herself for her sister, though she deplores her romanticism. Cast off by a good-looking married man and then suddenly denied the love of another, Miriam abandons all thoughts of romance for herself in favor of the pain of organized loneliness. She spends her quiet days in the library, "peacefully translating contemporary novels of no particular merit into English."
Brookner is equally astute when describing the three male characters who pass unattached through the sisters' lives. With perfect pitch, she captures the subtle tones of desire and tension between Miriam and her handsome married lover. Every note of courtesy and manipulation between Beatrice and her elderly agent is carefully amplified. As Beatrice's health fails, the author listens to the reverberations of sympathy and frustration from Miriam's new boyfriend with pained concentration.
In the course of such a serious story, Brookner's wit seems even more surprising and delightful. When her characters break out of contemplation to speak to one another, they display a dry, sharp sense of humor that Brookner spends with miserly restraint.
This is a short novel in which not very much happens, but we fall slowly into an understanding of these two women that's brilliantly intricate. The story moves gracefully back and forth through time, recalling their emotionally arid parents and tracing their long-held desire for marriage, companionship, and love.
In the static present of their lives, both sisters find themselves bewildered by their solitude. One night Miriam wonders, "How has she, a not unintelligent woman in the late 20th century, when women were supposed to know everything, come to this? But her part was clear; she was committed. She would manage somehow; there was no sense in which she would be found wanting. She would go home, have a hot bath, wash her hair. And then she would go to bed, and begin her period of waiting. And no one but herself would know what it cost."
Loneliness can be a repellent subject, a shameful feeling lonely people are trained by experience to hide, but Brookner parses these thoughts without a touch of maudlin sympathy. In the process, she's produced a chillingly insightful novel.
Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to email@example.com
By Anita Brookner
227 pp., $24