I haven’t read any Anita Brookner since last year’s rather successful International Anita Brookner Day. Having finished all of Brookner’s 24 novels, my intention is to re-read all of them in chronological order. Last year for IABD, I knocked off her first two novels The Debut (A Start in Life) and Providence. As much as I have liked all of Brookner’s novels on the first go, I found last year when I re-read those first two, that I liked them even more on a second read. Now with her third novel, Look at Me, I find myself of the same disposition. In fact, I think that Brookner’s novels which can seem superficially similar, have a depth that really makes them worth a second read–and frankly, I can imagine going back to them again and again for the rest of my life. This is especially comforting since, the once prolific Brookner (at one point a novel a year for about 20 years) seems to have slowed down considerably.
Frances Hinton, who hates being called Fanny, is always called Fanny. She works in a medical research library and like many other Brookner heroines, is miserably comfortable with her routine. That is until Dr. Nick Fraser and his wife Alix decide to make her a part of their social life.
If I moved in with them I would be delivered from the silence of Sundays, and all those terrible public holidays – Christmas, Easter – when I could never, ever, find an adequate means of using up all the available time.
Unlike many other Brookner heroines, Fanny comes to life as a result of this friendship and even starts seeing a doctor, James, who makes her happy.
Although I am naturally pale, I could feel the blood warm in my cheeks. I drew no conclusion from this, and my instinct was correct. I was not falling in love. Nor was there any likelihood that I might. But I was being protected, and that was something that I had not experienced for as long as I could remember. I was coming first with someone, as I had not done for some sad months past, and in my heart of hearts for longer, much longer.
Fanny’s benign desire for someone to finally pay attention to her is ultimately overtaken by Alix’s much less benign, somewhat pathological need to have everyone looking at her instead. Alix uses Fanny for her own amusement and doesn’t seem to mind the results. Fanny reflects on her relationship with Alix:
I was an audience and an admirer; I relieved some of her frustration; I shared her esteem for her own superiority; and I was loyal and well-behaved and totally uncritical. Yet she found me dull, intrinsically dull, simply because I was loyal and well-behaved and uncritical.
And it is Alix’s need to be at the center of attention that makes her more of a taker than a giver. Alix may have introduced Fanny to James, and enjoyed watching their relationship develop. But when she thinks she is being denied all the details of the results of her matchmaking, or worse, when she realizes that Fanny isn’t letting the relationship with James go where Alix thinks it should go, she begins to drive a wedge between Fanny and James. In many ways there is nothing unusual about this story, I think we have all been subjected to the cruel selfishness of so-called friends, and we have all been jilted in romantic relationships. But for Fanny the situation is life changing in a way that she struggles against. She sees her life going in a direction that seems inevitable despite her efforts to alter course.
I could have been different, I think. Once I had great confidence, great cheerfulness; I did not question my purpose or the purpose of others. All that had gone, and I had done my best to replace it. I had become diligent instead of spontaneous; I had become an observer when I saw that I was not allowed to participate. I had refused to be pitiable. I had never once said, Look at me. Now, it seemed I must make one more effort, one more attempt to prove myself viable. And if I succeeded, I might be granted one more opportunity to do it all over again. I did not dare to think what would happen if I failed.
Does she fail? If you have every read Brookner, you probably know the answer to that.