Harriet Lytton, a recent widow in self-imposed exile in Switzerland, exhorts Lizzie Peckham, the daughter of her childhood friend, and ersatz friend of her own daughter Immy, to visit her in Switzerland. Why Harriet chooses Lizzie to help her mitigate her lonely life in Switzerland, and how Harriet got to this lonely state in the first place, is laid out as the timeline goes back to before Harriet was born.
The daughter of a vivacious, rather driven mother and a father left nervous by his experiences in World War II, Harriet is born with a prominent birthmark on her face. The birthmark not only informs how Harriet feels about her self, her relationships, and her place in the world, but it’s also the motivation for Merle, Harriet’s mother, to gently, but firmly push her into a marriage with a much older man. Harriet finds herself married to a man she doesn’t really love and doesn’t even really like much, but the birth of her perfect, blemishless, daughter Imogen ends up being the focus of her life . As Immy grows older, more independent, and frankly, brattier, Harriet begins to escape the tedium of her marriage by thinking about the possibility of an affair with Jack Peckham. The husband of her childhood friend Tessa, Jack is a TV news correspondent who represents all the danger, and excitement, and passion missing from Harriet’s life.
In the meantime, the relationship between Harriet’s Immy and Tessa’s daughter Lizzie is never what Harriet thought it should be, but Harriet never figures this out. She is blind to how much the two girls dislike each other. Having been raised as the perfect child–the one who redeems Harriet’s life, Immy ends up acting like someone who was treated as perfect. She becomes insufferable and spoiled. Lizzie on the other hand becomes bookish and quiet and old beyond her years. In a way Harriet and Tessa ended up with the wrong children and all may have benefited from a parent swap. Interestingly, re-reading Brookner’s novels chronologically as I am, this is not the first time we see this notion of children born to the wrong parents in her work. The two sets of parents in Latecomers also each have have an only child who appears to be better suited to the other couple. It makes me wonder if Brookner felt she had been born into the wrong family.
And then, rather oddly for Brookner, there are a few spoilers. Without giving these spoilers away, one event that shapes the story fairly early on, and thus, isn’t so much of a spoiler, is that Tessa dies young leaving Lizzie adrift and Jack, the subject of Harriet’s seduction fantasies. But then the spoiler of spoilers happens that cements Harriet’s future. Don’t get me wrong, for those of you used to plot, this spoiler won’t shock you much when you come across it, but for those who have read a lot of Brookner, it’s pretty surprising.
The net result is a life of low expectations that are nevertheless unmet. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, those of you who don’t mind that won’t mind that.
The jacket flap from my U.S. edition referred to the novel as a story of three generations of women, but I really think it is more accurately thought of as Harriet’s story. Her mother Merle is fairly well fleshed out, but Immy remains pretty opaque even when we know is going on in her life. And all that we do learn about Merle and Immy is not really independent of their association with their daughter/mother. Brookner created a literary work that revolves around Harriet but Harriet’s “real” life most certainly does not revolve around her.