Anita Brookner’s The Misalliance

I know Brookner is an acquired taste and many will find any number of faults with her content and style, but good God I love her work. She is like Barbara Pym without a sense of humor. I’m up to number six in my chronological re-read of all of Brookner’s 24 novels. Here is my attempt to ‘review’ it. 

You will also find it crossposted over at the International Anita Brookner Day blog.

Just about every relationship in The Misalliance (or A Misalliance in the UK) could be considered a misalliance.

After being left by her husband of twenty years Blanche spends her days wandering the National Gallery and her solitary evenings with a bottle of wine. She spends a fair amount of time in musing on the reasons why her husband left her and the type of woman he left her for, but I never got the feeling that that was the point of this novel. In many ways Blanche seems rather complacent about her husband’s departure, as if it had been her own fault for not being the right kind of woman. That in itself is tragic given that she devoted her married life to becoming the kind of public and private companion that her husband Bertie seemed to want.

While volunteering at the local hospital one day Blanche is drawn to Sally Beamish, a young mother who is there trying to get help for her three-year old daughter Elinor/Nellie who is mute. Blanche is immediately taken with the child, seeing her as a patient, old soul putting up with a flighty mother and an absent father. Indeed she sees Nellie as a kindred spirit and she moves to offer assistance to Sally whose life is a bit of a self-imposed mess. Her husband Paul is off being a factotum for a wealthy American family who have oddly decided to only pay him in one lump sum at the end of an extended trip. By the end of that trip, however, Paul is essentially accused of embezzling funds and is unlikely to get the pay coming to him. This situation never amounts to anything with legal implications but Blanche is coerced into intervening on Paul’s behalf –a man she has never even seen before.

Throughout all of this Blanche’s ex-husband Bertie continues to drop in most evenings ostensibly to see how Blanche is doing. This struck me as Bertie wanting to have it both ways. Why give up the comforts of a trusted, supportive ex-spouse just because you have moved on to a younger, more dynamic wife? Although Blanche looks forward to these meetings and retains an emotional attachment to Bertie, I never got the feeling that they were necessary to her well-being. If anything I felt they might be keeping her from moving forward. Also part of the story is Patrick, a suitor in the days prior to Bertie with whom she has remained friends over the years. She asks for his advice on how to best help Sally and Nellie  and he ends up falling in love with the much younger Sally. Nothing ever comes of it, Sally uses Patrick for support in the same way she uses Blanche, but it is enough for Blanche to see Patrick for what he really is.

Blanche is a bit of a victim of male behavior and privilege, and although she is a bit stuck trying to make sense of it all, I kind of felt like she might be on the cusp of something. Perhaps it’s a recognition that the men in her life are really rather weak and certainly not to be relied upon. Blanche’s decision to leave them all behind and go off traveling for an extended, undefined period is, I suppose, at least partly out of desperation. But I couldn’t help projecting my own wishes for Blanche. This was going to be the moment of her triumph. The moment when she leaves it all behind and discovers who she really is.

And then at the eleventh hour Bertie returns–and seemingly for good. Is this vindication for Blanche and the restoration of her married life? Perhaps, but rather than finding it something to celebrate, I found it no more than a threat to her ultimate happiness. A return to her life in a comfy prison. But Brookner leaves us hanging as to what happens next. My feeling is that if Blanche does take him back it won’t stick.  He may not leave her again but she will realize he isn’t what she wants and this is the real misalliance of the book. Not the first 20 years, not the connection with Sally and Nellie, but what happens after Bertie’s return. His return may delay her self-realization, but it won’t preempt it entirely.


This thought may not be worth much, but it is something I want to memorialize for my own edification. I loved the scenes where Mrs. Duff comes to Blanche’s rescue despite the fact that Blanche has never shown her more than a begrudged politeness. Mrs. Duff’s simple, but helpful assistance when Blanche fell ill seems like the only bit of altruism in the book. Brookner doesn’t make much of it. But she must have had something in mind. I can think of a few things, but I really just mention it because I was warmed by those scenes.

9 thoughts on “Anita Brookner’s The Misalliance

  1. Ti April 8, 2015 / 11:26 am

    I've never read Brookner before but I can see myself reading this book. Sounds like something I'd appreciate.


  2. Joanne April 8, 2015 / 8:52 pm

    This is an amazing coincidence! I bought some Pyms at a used bookstore today and the owner gave me this book as a gift. It really warmed my heart, not just getting a free book but because another book lover took the time to introduce me to a new author. I'm looking forward to giving Brookner a try.


  3. vicki (skiourophile) April 9, 2015 / 2:20 am

    I put this way down my Brookner list to read because of the kid. Not wild on kids in books. Then I worry that I am turning into a stereotypically evil old spinster for doing this… I need some sort of 'What Would Brookner Do?' to make my decision here.


  4. Thomas at My Porch April 9, 2015 / 8:28 am

    You can start with any of her novels and have a similar experience, no need to hold out for this one. You will find her quite easily available at used bookstores and your library will probably have a few as well unless they have an aggressive weeding policy. Most likely you will find her Booker Prize-winning Hotel du Lac. She pretty much wrote a book a year for 24 years and didn't publish her first one until she was in her 50s. Just expect a quiet rather somber read with lots of emotional insight.


  5. Thomas at My Porch April 9, 2015 / 8:29 am

    I love that bookseller. I know how she/he feels in wanting to share books. At a library book sale I bought a book for a woman because I thought she would like it.


  6. Thomas at My Porch April 9, 2015 / 8:33 am

    The child doesn't play a huge role, although probably a bigger one than my review would suggest. There is nothing sentimental about it, except as a kind of proxy for Blanche. The child could be 60. And since she is mute you don't have to read any children's dialogue. (A little dark humor.)


  7. Thomas at My Porch April 9, 2015 / 8:43 am

    I think it might be an antidote to the chaos of family. Not just because her novels can induce deep calm, but because her characters sad lives will make you even more grateful for your loving, lively family.


  8. StuckInABook April 9, 2015 / 5:33 pm

    “She is like Barbara Pym without a sense of humor” – YES. This is why I don't like her, I think.


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