Hearts that break silently

Anita Brookner offers us another polite but profoundly solitary heroine.

It was Henry David Thoreau who so famously opined that most men lead lives of quiet desperation. But there has perhaps never been a novelist more skilled than Anita Brookner at producing detailed portraits of what an exquisite female version of that desperation might look like.

Over the years, Brookner has offered us more than one heroine who glides through life thoughtfully and decorously. She measures her words with caution and exercises infinite care not to disturb life's harmonious surface.

But the practiced ears of Brookner's readers will easily detect the screams that tremble unformed just beneath.

Emma Roberts, the heroine of Leaving Home, Brookner's 23rd novel, is such a character. She joins her spiritual kin, other Brookner females, as yet another cautious observer, a woman unsure she wants to jump into life's messy melee even as she despairs of missing out on its joys.

Emma has been raised alone in London by her widowed mother. They have lived in an atmosphere of melancholy and solitude, and that is the milieu Emma finds comfortably reassuring - even as it suffocates her.

Finally, however, in her mid-20s, she summons up the courage to travel to Paris to study 17th-century garden design. (This is her passion, an art form that embraces what Emma calls "the classical code - reticence, sobriety, order.")

In a Parisian library, she meets Françoise, who is in some respects her Gallic counterpart - a dutiful daughter also raised alone by a widowed mother. Françoise, however, is the French version of that experience: a young woman "electric with an energy that made her presence in the library dangerously welcome."

Emma and Françoise become friends, despite Emma's understanding that Françoise views her as "timid, inhibited, backward, and altogether harmless." When Emma's mother suddenly dies, she is called back to London, but not out of Françoise's life.

On the contrary, as Emma spends much of the rest of the book ricocheting back and forth between Paris and London, in some ways the two women draw closer than ever, especially when an eerie symmetry develops in their life trajectories.

Despite their differences, it becomes apparent that the two are engaged in equally fierce battles to separate from the burdens their mothers have imposed on them.

In Emma's case, it means a struggle to break free from "a tendency to melancholy, to rumination, an acceptance of solitude" - all of which cut her off from the simple pleasures of companionship even now that her mother is gone.

For Françoise, the fight is more external than internal. She must either accept the arranged marriage her mother desires that would preserve their lovely country home or flee with an American lover.

It's not too different, Emma notes, from what goes on in her beloved gardens, where gardeners pit their own will against that of nature. ("Symmetry was only temporary," she discovers, "and at some point nature would resume the upper hand.")

The wars the two women wage are desperate but almost soundless and never overtly acknowledged, not even to each other. And even as they struggle, the novel moves forward at a truly Brooknerian pace: deliberate, ordered, and unrushed - not unlike a dark yet ever stately minuet.

Meanwhile, Emma yearns for a home. Unable to choose between Paris and London she bounces uncomfortably back and forth between the two. In Paris, her hotel room has been taken over by the more forceful Françoise. In London, she sells her mother's flat and impulsively buys the apartment of a vivacious young woman, only to discover that it loses its charm when it becomes her own.

For readers who are already fans of Brookner, this will be yet another delicious reading experience. Her elegant prose and psychological acuity are fully on display and will not disappoint.

For those unfamiliar with Brookner's work, the best test case would be Henry James. Those who marvel over "Portrait of a Lady" are likely also to be drawn to Brookner's sparer - but equally insightful - human portraits.

Any reader with a low tolerance of psychic discomfort, however, may need to steer clear of a novel like "Leaving Home." As a narrator Emma is both clear-eyed and honest - often achingly so. Her low estimate of herself, her slender chances for happiness, and her willingness to accept so slight a role in life's drama are almost physically painful at times. (She is touched at her Parisian hotel when the concierge coldly says they have become accustomed to her - it's more than she expects in life.)

As a heroine Emma perhaps offers the same charms and needs to be appreciated in the way that she prefers to view her favorite gardens: "deserted, on misty mornings, at unpopular times of the year, compelling in their silence and secrecy."

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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