This early novel by Brookner is about Frances Hinton, a not-young woman who works in the reference library of a medical research institute and does not like to be called Fanny. Her life is a lonely one, lightened only by her friend and co-worker Olivia, a woman who is never discomposed. Frances says that “Problems of human behavior still continue to baffle us, but at least in the Library we have them properly filed.” She shares with us the antics of the regular patrons of the library, including reticent Dr. Simek and the blowsy Mrs. Halloran.
Then there's Nick Fraser. “‘That,' says Mrs. Halloran heavily after every other one of Nick's disruptive visits to the Library, ‘is one hell of a man.'” Nick and his wife Alix are a lively, charming couple who add a new dimension to Frances's life by unexpectedly taking her up, inviting her to dinner and other outings with them. They call her Little Orphan Fanny and carelessly bring her into their circle of friends.
For Frances, it is more than their charm and brilliant sheen that attract her; she wants to learn how to be selfish. She says that she never wants to be loved by the sort of men who loved her mother: “kind, shy, easily damaged.” She says, “In a way I prefer them to be impervious, even if it means they are impervious to me.” Later she says, “I needed to know that not everyone carries a wound and that this wound bleeds intermittently throughout life.” Yet the title betrays a fundamental human need that cannot be ignored.
The premise for this story seemed a familiar one to me, having recently read A Note in Music, by Rosamond Lehmann, where lonely Grace's life is similarly changed by the entrance of a glamorous and carelessly chic couple. As in that novel, I found deep satisfaction in the deliberate development of characters who side-stepped my preconceptions, surprising and delighting me.
As always with Brookner, the joy is in the details. We gradually get to know Frances and the people in her small canvas, layers built up gradually with a fine brush. I have long been a fan of Brookner's work, ever since Christine gave me a copy of Hotel du Lac several decades ago. This novel seems to me one of her best; certainly it moved me profoundly and I will not soon forget it.
What is your favorite Brookner novel?