04 September 2009

Book Review: A Start in Life by Anita Brookner

A Start in Life Ruth Weiss’s life revolves around books - the ones she lectures on, the ones she reads, and the one she’s writing about the female characters in Balzac’s novels. Towards the end of another day, the same as all her others, she begins to reflect on how she has come to lead a life ruined by literature, and to remember a time when things still had the potential to turn out differently....

What follows is almost more an interlocking set of character portraits than a story. There is a progression of events moving forward in time, but it’s all very low-key and concerned mostly with the natures of Ruth, her bookseller father George and actress mother Helen, their housekeeper Mrs Cutler, and various other people who enter their orbits. And for what it is, it’s good. They may not do much, but those characters are the sort to linger in your imagination well after the last page. (How much I’ll remember about their actions is another matter.)

Yet whenever I needed time for something other than reading, this book was always the first of my current reads to be laid aside, and the last to be picked up. For a mere 176 pages it took an inordinately long time to finish. One reason was the lack of tension - you know from the start how Ruth’s life is going to turn out. Another was that it failed to provide any of the three main things I look for in a book - closer acquaintance with the classics; information; or escapism. I strongly suspect I would be entirely content in the confines of academia (preferably a historical archive somewhere). I also suspect that if that were possible, my studies would absorb as much of my existence as Ruth’s did of hers. So I read about Ruth and her small quiet life, and thought There but for the fact I studied science go I.

And speaking of literature - I’m sure an acquaintance with Balzac would have helped. On the up side, he’s now on my vague list of authors to read one day.

Rating: B-

2 comments:

Diane said...

I just read Strangers by Brookner and liked it so i might try this one too.

mel u said...

I read "A Start in Life" about two weeks ago and posted on it on my blog. You are right, not much happens in the book. I also left the book thinking I should read a few Balzac novels soon. I closed the book being thankful that Dr Weizel had beautiful red hair. I enjoyed your review a lot. I actually did a joint post on this book and "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress".

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776