Book Review: The Debut by Anita Brookner


By this time I am sure that you all know that International Anita Brookner Day is right around the corner on July 16th. You probably also know that I have already read all of Brookner’s 24 novels, having finished up the last two last year. So now I get to go back and read them all again, except this time I am going to read them in chronological order. I was tempted for a bit to read a few for IABD that others haven’t reviewed so I could help fill in some of the gaps in the reviews. But my OCD kicked in and insisted I follow chron order.

I don’t do much re-reading so it is a bit of a novel (ha) experience for me to go back and start from the beginning. If there is any author whose work fares well, perhaps even better, on a second read, I am finding that Anita Brookner is that author. Perhaps the most difficult part of reviewing a re-read is that it kind of requires me to dig a little deeper than I normally do in my reviews. But that could turn out to be a hot mess. Here it goes.

By now it is almost cliche in a review of The Debut (A Start in Life outside the U.S.) to quote the opening sentence:

Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.

In my humble opinion, one of the great opening lines of the 20th century. (Yet in a way, it isn’t very 20th century in sentiment, is it?) Slightly less often, reviews of The Debut go on to quote what comes after the opening line:

In her toughtful and academic way, she put it down to her faulty moral education, which dictated, through the conflicting, but in this one instance, united agencies of her mother and father, that she ponder the careers of Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, but that she emulate those of David Copperfield and Little Dorritt.

But then where do I go from there? Perhaps say something trite about the fact that Brookner’s work is highly literate and that she is nothing if not a booklovers novelist. Done and done.

Actress mother, bookseller father far too into their own lives to bother much with their only child. Old world grandmother does her best to make a pleasant home life for Ruth, but really what kind of life is it for a child? Immature, self-involved, vain parents and an aging grandmother. No wonder Ruth turns to books for sustenance and life lessons. She says of her first encounters with Dickens that “The moral universe was unveiled.” With books standing in loco parentis it is no wonder that Ruth looks to books for comfort when her grandmother passes away…literally:

She took her grandmother’s hand and kissed it, then raised the book to her cheek and held it there for a little while…

With little more than books to show her the way it is no surprise that Ruth takes on the role of parenting her parents fairly early in life. When her teacher at school wants to see her parents her mother is less than accomodating. But by this time Ruth knows what it will take to motivate her mother.

For once she learned cunning. “They all talk about you at school,” she said carefully. “they ask me lots of questions. They still talk about you in Lady Windermere’s Fan. And you’ve never been there. You or Daddy. I think you should come once. These things make a difference.

And then reverting back to girlhood:

Cunning deserted her. “And it is my future we’re talking about.”

And so they go to school and so then does Ruth go to university. But even in that her mother’s selfishness wins out. Although she shows little interest in Ruth’s life, her mother insists that she not even try for Oxford or Cambridge because she wants her close at hand.

Like so many socially awkward people, Ruth’s world and personality open up at university. She still lives a life of books–more so than ever–but makes friends, moves to Paris to study, has romantic assignations, and seems to be looking forward to life in Paris. But it isn’t long before her parent’s to wield their selfish heads to recall her to London to keep an eye on ailing mother so that philandering father can continue his affair untroubled by who is taking care of his wife. Even her marriage that ultimately results out of her return home doesn’t quite put her on a trajectory as fulfilling as the…

God, I am beginning to bore myself. That doesn’t bode well for you dear reader. This review sounds half-baked. I am not sure what I am getting at. Part of the problem for an amateur like myself is that I want to say something as clever as Anita Brookner’s prose. Before I started re-reading her novels–although I loved them–I felt the need to qualify my love. I would warn people that not much happens. That they are depressing. That they all kind of blend together. But you know what? My re-reading experience thus far (I have also re-read her second novel Providence), has really proven to me that my enthusiasm for Brookner doesn’t require qualifiers. Sure, they won’t be for everyone, but her books are far too good and her writing far too deep and illuminating for me to be apologizing for her work. They really are brilliant. And this my friends is why I suck at reviewing them properly. How can anyone try and describe what Brookner has distilled into 192 crystalline, almost poetic, pages of human emotion?  I certainly can’t.

P.S. I think the original title A Start in Life is far better than the U.S. title. A debut suggests a well prepared for entrance into the world. Whereas Ruth just seems to slide into things with little help from anyone and with no fanfare. Plus a start in life can refer to many stages in her life: her formative years whe she got her actual start in life; her university life in which she manages to get a start in her professional life; getting started in what the reader hopes will be her life in Paris; and finally as she gets started in the non-Paris life that will no doubt see her through to the end.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Debut by Anita Brookner

  1. Darlene July 9, 2011 / 1:23 pm

    I wasn't bored at all, Thomas! As the child of selfish parents and one who turned to books for adventure I'd say you have done a stellar job of pointing out my next Brookner.


  2. giraffeelizabeth July 10, 2011 / 2:44 pm

    Me neither – not bored at all! What a fantastic opening line and how impressive that you have read all 24 of Brookners novels.. I have read two (well sort of, didn't finish Hotel Du Lac) and picked up Leaving Home at the library yesterday – couldn't resist joining in.


  3. savidgereads July 10, 2011 / 4:53 pm

    I can add to the 'not bored at all' comments Thomas. I really enjoyed that post and you are spot on, its books like this one, which I think is a great introduction to Brookner, that show just how much booklovers will love her.


  4. mel u July 12, 2011 / 3:58 am

    For sure not boring-when I read the opening line I thought I knew what she meant-it is just a great opening line


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