Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

How to live alone and get by, Brookner style…

July 16, which will be Anita Brookner’s 83rd birthday, has been renamed International Anita Brookner Day by Thomas at My Porch 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.  Two girls, both called Elizabeth meet at school.  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)

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I bought my book.  To explore on Amazon UK (via my affiliate link), click below:
The Rules of Engagement by Anita Brookner.

10 Comments

  1. I read this one and will be putting up my review shortly, I agree. I enjoyed it for the most part but I was very frustrated by the characters inability to sort her life out. She wouldnt even go on holiday FFS

  2. I’m afraid that the only Brookner I have really enjoyed was Hotel du Lac and it has been a very long time since I read that!
    I did read another two or three (at this distance in time I can’t remember which ones) but as you say, nothing much happens and for me they were far too similar in tone to make me want to seek out any others.

    • gaskella

      June 28, 2011 at 10:51 am

      Hotel du Lac is probably the one I should have read Liz – it’s in the TBR along with a couple of others, but I wanted to pick a less read novel.

  3. This author is new to me. Thanks for the review.

  4. I don’t get Anita Brookner at all. Her prose is classy and stylish but there is no resistance to it; my mind seems to slide off her sentences and starts thinking of something else.

    • gaskella

      June 30, 2011 at 1:19 pm

      I love your way of putting it. I wish I could remember which Brookner books I read before, my records don’t go that far back. I’m sure I enjoyed the first one, but couldn’t help thinking I’d heard it all before reading this one.

  5. Thanks for joining in Annabel, and sorry for commenting so late (I also got your email), so sorry this didnt quite turn out the way you hoped. I think the whole comparison in the two womens lives is sort of the point in this novel (not one i have read by the way) as is the fact that it sounds like the heroine cant sort her life out. This is a theme in her work and one people either love, or, erm, don’t.

    Jessica’s last comment has just made me laugh and laugh.

  6. gaskella

    July 3, 2011 at 7:47 am

    This one didn’t do it for me as you surmised Simon. I agree re the comparison, but it is all heard through the one voice – on reflection it would have been nice to see how Betsy saw Elizabeth’s life too… but then that’s not AB’s style!

  7. I can’t believe I missed your review. May I re-post the review on the IABD website?

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