A Start in Life – Anita Brookner

I was looking for something short and sweet to read the other day and after perusing my immediate TBR I was shocked that nothing new seemed to leap out at me (more on that tomorrow). I decided I would have a look at who I read last year and had been meaning to read again and decided on ‘A Start in Life’ by Anita Brookner. I really enjoyed her subtle Man Booker Winner ‘Hotel Du Lac’ and so wondered if her debut novel would have the same success with me.

‘A Start in Life’ is really the tale of Ruth Weiss and as we meet her she seems to be undergoing some sort of mid life crisis all of which she blames on literature in the wonderful opening line. ‘Dr Weiss, at forty, knew her life had been ruined by literature.’ From this point of her realisation of this we are taken back through Ruth’s childhood at Oakwood Court, her schooling days, life in London and Paris and onwards meeting her family friends and lovers along the way to find out why.

There is a plot to the book as it is based on one woman’s life and the experiences she has. However its not plot driven, really it’s a book that through some rather wonderful characters looks at many different themes. For example through George and Helen, Ruth’s parents, you are given the story of both the aging process and some of its perils and marriage as it goes through several decades. Anthea who Ruth meet’s at school illustrates the varying emotions, protectiveness and competitiveness of friendship. Through Ruth’s varying relationships we see differing views of love and their effects on people.

It’s the characters their backgrounds and wit that Brookner gives to them that make this such a joy to read. Ruth’s mother is hilarious and a complete scene stealer which is apt as she is a retired actress. With her looks faded she now spends most of her days in bed with some alcoholic drink and the memories of her fame and beauty. She does venture out of bed now and again, though slightly begrudgingly and always dramatically, and always gives you wonderful lines. One of my favourites was after meeting Anthea and being delightful the whole way through she turns and says ‘she has the soul of an air hostess’ there are many, many to choose from though. In fact one line which made me laugh out loud was about Helen ‘she was feeling much better herself, and allowed an extra sleeping pill as a treat.’

In fact really to show you just how good Brookner is, and remember this was her debut novel, with characters I found a brilliant short description of the Weisses new live-in maid that sums a person up in a paragraph. ‘So they got a woman in, a Mrs Cutler, ‘our darling Maggie’, as Helen instantly called her, a wry, spry widow, quick to take offense. She served meals at unpunctual intervals, so that Ruth always found herself too late or too early, kept the radio on while she worked, and smoked all day.’ Brookner does this with characters quite often or will cause a situation where one line or action defines a character who is new into the story.

I can see why some people say that Brookner should have been writing in the 1930’s because it has that feel and charming appeal. I think this book is actually set between the 1960’s and 1980’s but it could be right now even though it was written in 1981 (it’s aptly called ‘The Debut’ in the US). I am really shocked to discover that many of her books are now out of print because with stories and characters like these they are begging to be discovered. Maybe I should start some kind of Brookner campaign?

If you haven’t read Brookner then I think you should definitely give her a try, I will definitely be reading much more of her work over the coming months as when I was allowed to bookshop, all those months ago, I had a lot of second hand success with Brookner and got lots of books, including this one, for 50p each, a bargain for such a pleasurable read. I am hesitant to say I have found a new favourite author but it mightn’t be far from the truth. Who else has read Brookner and loved her (if you didn’t your not welcome in these parts ha, that’s a joke) what other books of hers should I try and find?


Filed under Anita Brookner, Books of 2010, Penguin Books, Review

28 responses to “A Start in Life – Anita Brookner

  1. ana

    Always enjoy a Brookner when I am lucky enough to find one on the Library shelves. They are usually not too long and can be devoured in a sitting.

    While i can’t recall much of the plot of A Start in Life, I do vividly remember that opening sentence. Wonderful!! I was hooked. Her Visitors was one I did enjoy. Strangers and Leaving Home were others that are excellent examples of her most economical and incisive style.

    • I don’t know if this one could be devoured in a sitting as though its wonderfully written, witty and filled with characters this one has big themes and the more you go on the bigger you realise they are, every so often I needed to pop it down and have a good old think about it all between chapters.

  2. Susan in TX

    So glad to read this (and to follow the link to your previous review) since I just picked up Hotel du Lac a couple of weeks ago at our local Half-Price bookstore. I was actually hunting for her title Family and Friends, having seen it make Susan Hill’s “list” in HEIOTL. If you haven’t read that one, it sounds like it might be worth the read.

    • Yes I noticed that Anita Brookner not only made the final forty (for now) but also got mentioned as sometimes Susan Hill says she has a Brookner binge herself now and then.

  3. I like it when writers are able to give vivid capsule descriptions of minor characters. I’ve never read Anita Brookner, so this may be a good book to start with.

    • This book gives exactly that Christy. I am so saddened by the lack of her books you can buy brand new, mind you I havent read much of her and certainly nothing recent.

  4. Linda

    Thank you for the reminder of Anita Brookner. Having read some ‘gritty’ fiction recently I feel the need for something different, so might be timely to re-read something by her.
    As an aside … I’ve just started Miss Garnet’s Angel – Salley Vickers – (one of three books for £1) found at an Art, Craft & Second-hand book Fair held Easter Monday and have been ‘transported’ to Venice with Julia Garnet.

    • I am having that ‘I need something different’ phase and I think that is why I needed to pull something different like this off the TBR and have a read of something a bit out of the normal realms for me of late which seems to be contemporary, contemporary, contemporary.

      Miss Garnett’s Angel is bloody marvellous isn’t it, mind you she wouldn’t want that mild swearing from me would she, I should be ashammed.

  5. Thanks for your wonderful review. I will add this book to my wishlist.

  6. Like you, I started with Hotel du Lac and have gathered about a dozen since (many second-hand, as you’ve found yourself) but have only read a couple of others. Still, I like knowing that they’re hanging out on my shelves, ready for a Brookner binge someday.

    • Second hand seems to be the best way to get your hands on some good Brookner, which sounds like I am slagging it off and I am not its just truth, and getting them for a bargain adds to the pleasure to my mind hee hee. I think I will be having Brookner binges on and off for the rest of the year.

  7. I’ve never read any Brookner, but that first line sounds like it was written about me. Hahahaha.

    I do have Providence in the queue, so maybe I will dig it out at some point.

    • Why do you say that Kim, you dont think literature could ruin life do you hee hee, I hope not lol.

      I woudl give her a whirl, I know nothing of Providence but if it ever crosses my path, like with any Brookner I don’t own, I would instantly run off with it (as long as didnt mean spending money, well this year).

  8. I enjoyed Hotel Du Lac, too, although I can’t remember it in detail right now. I’d like to give this a go someday.

    I’d really like to be on your tour of Highgate. If you see a curly haired Italian you know I snuck my way in from the States!

  9. I agree with you. Her writing sounds like it belongs a
    few decades earlier.

    I recently read Leaving Home. I thought it was set in the
    1950s until the protagonist mentions hoping on the Chunnel

    It had the feel of being in the decade before the freedoms of the
    1960s, but it was actually set later.

    I need to look for this book also.

    • She does have a style that isn’t dated its just reminiscent of days gone by if that makes any sense?

      I think that Leaving Home might be my next port of call with Brookner, Penguin have done a lovely new edition (its one of the Brookner books you can actually by at the moment) for their decades series which Kim of Reading Matters directed me to today.

  10. Anita Brookner is one of my absolute favorites. I love that she has been so prolific and I have read all but 2 of her 23 titles (may she keep pumping them out one a year…).

    I was super lucky a few summers ago to come across an entire shelf of Brookner hardcover US first edtions at a used bookstore in Philadelphia. They were priced really nicely so I bought every single one of them–about 10 in all. I have found her pretty easy to find used.

    She is so fabulous…

    • Does she do one a year? Oh thats good to know. I am the opposite of you though as I am only two in out of the twenty three hahaha.

      Thats a great shopping expedition you had in Philly! I only bought one book when I went there two years ago and that was an Augusten Burroughs book… slightly different from Brookner lol. Although thinking on it… they are next to each other on my shelves.

  11. gaskella

    Brookner is an author I’ve only read a couple of, but I really enjoyed them, although they are bittersweet.

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  13. novelinsights

    Agree with Kim, I often find myself saying to the other half ‘ooh if this was x,y,z book you’d do this romantic thing’, so I think literature does spoil us! 🙂

    I’m going to look out for some Brookner on my next library visit. Perhaps start out with a less well known one then work up to the fabulous Man Booker winner!

  14. Norman

    Greetings from Sydney, Australia. I have just found your splendid blog while researching Anita Brookner. I am so pleased that you have mentioned her. Her style is a nice counterpoint to much of today’s violent magic realism or superficial gothic.

    I admire the reader above who devours Brookner in “a sitting”. This is no mean feat given the often dense nature of Brookner’s prose – thematically and syntactically dense.

    You can now go on to investigate Brookner’s literary “sisters,” Elizabeth Taylor and Barbra Pym.

    Congratulations on a great blog.

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