It was Henry David Thoreau who so famously opined that most men
lead lives of quiet desperation. But there has perhaps never been a
novelist more skilled than Anita Brookner at producing detailed
portraits of what an exquisite female version of that desperation
might look like.
Over the years, Brookner has offered us more than one heroine who
glides through life thoughtfully and decorously. She measures her
words with caution and exercises infinite care not to disturb life's
But the practiced ears of Brookner's readers will easily detect
the screams that tremble unformed just beneath.
Emma Roberts, the heroine of Leaving Home, Brookner's 23rd novel,
is such a character. She joins her spiritual kin, other Brookner
females, as yet another cautious observer, a woman unsure she wants
to jump into life's messy melee even as she despairs of missing out
on its joys.
Emma has been raised alone in London by her widowed mother. They
have lived in an atmosphere of melancholy and solitude, and that is
the milieu Emma finds comfortably reassuring - even as it suffocates
Finally, however, in her mid-20s, she summons up the courage to
travel to Paris to study 17th-century garden design. (This is her
passion, an art form that embraces what Emma calls "the classical
code - reticence, sobriety, order.")
In a Parisian library, she meets Francoise, who is in some
respects her Gallic counterpart - a dutiful daughter also raised
alone by a widowed mother. Francoise, however, is the French version
of that experience: a young woman "electric with an energy that made
her presence in the library dangerously welcome."
Emma and Francoise become friends, despite Emma's understanding
that Francoise views her as "timid, inhibited, backward, and
altogether harmless." When Emma's mother suddenly dies, she is
called back to London, but not out of Francoise's life.
On the contrary, as Emma spends much of the rest of the book
ricocheting back and forth between Paris and London, in some ways
the two women draw closer than ever, especially when an eerie
symmetry develops in their life trajectories.
Despite their differences, it becomes apparent that the two are
engaged in equally fierce battles to separate from the burdens their
mothers have imposed on them.
In Emma's case, it means a struggle to break free from "a
tendency to melancholy, to rumination, an acceptance of solitude" -
all of which cut her off from the simple pleasures of companionship
even now that her mother is gone. …