Sunday, January 3, 2010

Strangers by Anita Brookner

In an Anita Brookner novel, readers are drawn into a world where they feel as though they are wandering a rain slicked London street at three a.m., peering at lights in windows.  Brookner is a master of human nature and the inward voice. She is an underrated novelist, brilliant in articulating the feelings, memories and longings of contemplative, often wry, complex and solitary characters - those whose expectations of life have gone unfulfilled.

The focus of Strangers (Brookner's 24th novel) is Paul Sturgis - an emotionally-reserved, 73 year-old retired banker and bachelor who lives a self-contained existence. He has been successful in his professional life and while he has great depth and substance, loneliness colors the way he navigates through the world - he studies the weather in order to be able to make conversation with strangers. When his last link to any sense of family dies (a cousin by marriage), the prospect of Sturgis's own mortality and the possibility that he may someday "die among strangers" begins to shape itself into reality. Should Sturgis take off for Paris to live out his remaining days or should he marry one of two women who unexpectedly cross his path? One woman is an energetic, if rather flighty and impulsive, divorced woman 20 years younger than he whom he meets on a plane to Venice - an attempt to escape the merriment of the holidays. The other is an old flame, now feeling the effects of aging herself, who once lashed out at Sturgis for being "too nice." Twenty years before, she considered Sturgis's "niceness" a fault that made him an unappealing candidate for the long-term. But now? Sturgis, conflicted when confronted by the past, begins to consider if perhaps his "niceness" might explain his life-long failure at having had successful intimate relationships.

The presence of these two, very different women force Sturgis to face his existential fears and make a choice for his life. Should he invest in companionship or reconcile himself to a life where he goes it alone? In true Brookner form, the plot of this quietly-paced, gracefully-constructed novel once again reveals how introspection and self-examination--and subtle, interior shifts--can ultimately have the power to change exterior worlds in unexpected ways.

Strangers by Anita Brookner
(Random House, Hardcover, 9781400068340, 256pp.)
Publication Date: June 16, 2009
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