“Leaving Home” by Anita Brookner – Emma’s Solitary Shuttle between London and Paris

“Leaving Home” by Anita Brookner  (2005) – (212 pages)

“Leaving Home” is the novel where the critical knives of the Guardian (Maureen Freely) and the New York Times Book Review (Caryn James) came out in full force against Anita Brookner.  Here are some quotes from their reviews.

    “It is almost as if Brookner has chosen to go over old ground for the umpteenth time because she wants to be absolutely sure, before she’s through, that she’s demolished all signs of life in it.” – Maureen Freely
    “Now a musty smell wafts from each Brookner book, a stale whiff that arises partly because she has tweaked the same novel 23 times in 24 years.” – Caryn James
    “Instead we get a meandering and unfocused lament…” – Maureen Freely
    “With Emma Roberts, the heroine of “Leaving Home,” Brookner may finally have gone too far. In many ways, Emma is a typical Brookner character: bookish, meek, all but devoid of sexual passion. But she also displays a wide streak of self-pity that makes it difficult for a reader to like her nearly as much as Brookner does.” – Caryn James
    “Yet Emma’s whining tone undermines our sympathy.” – Caryn James

I was quite surprised by the vehemence of these reviews, since I have admired the elegance, style, and insight of Anita  Brookner’s writing going back to “Look at Me” and the Booker prize winning “Hotel du Lac”.  Over the years, I’ve read about eight of her novels. I happened to read these two negative reviews about one-third of the way through reading “Leaving Home”, and these reviews could not help but affect my reactions to the work.

The heroines of Anita Brookner’s novels always value their own solitude even when it leaves them isolated and lonely.  Somehow I can’t imagine very many young women considering their own solitude when making their life choices; otherwise there would be few marriages, fewer families.

Emma, the heroine of “Leaving Home”, does have a couple of relationships with men.  First there is Michael who goes with her to museums and public gardens on Sundays.  Then there is Phillip, an older doctor, who goes out to lunches with her, usually smoked salmon.   Both relationships go nowhere, although Phillip may stick around as a platonic friend.   That’s it, no passion whatsoever.  Yet as always the language of the novel is exquisite.  I think the difference between “Leaving Home” and the other Anita Briikner novels I’ve read is that while the other novels were cheerful and diverting, a feeling of cheerlessness crept into “Leaving Home”.  This woman has planned her solitary life so carefully, she can do nothing to escape the resulting loneliness.  Maybe that is the point. 

It is difficult to accept that Anita Brookner is already 82 years old.  Of course she didn’t publish her first novel until she was 53.  I keep thinking she is younger.   I expect I will continue to read Anita Brookner novels, because it has become a habit over the years.

    “Problems of human behavior still continue to baffle us, but at least in the Library we have them properly filed.” – Anita Brookner
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9 responses to this post.

  1. Tony, I have to admit that I’m not sure I’ve read Leaving Home because I tend to get her books mixed up. But she is an excellent writer and I am extremely surprised by the negative quotes from reviews. When I think of all the terrible books I’ve read parts of because of excellent reviews and see these comments about one of the very good writers it is very irritating. I think she has a new book. I’ll have to look for that one.

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    • Hi Frisbee,
      “Leaving Home” and these two negative reviews have not decreased my enthusiasm for Anita Brookner’s writing at all, and I am also awaiting her next novel. I remember reading “Incident at the Rue Langer” in the Nineties and think what a great novel it was, perhaps her best. I remember that one being quite cheerful.

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  2. I like Brookner too, though haven’t read her last few. Are her other ones “cheerful and diverting”? That’s not really how I recollect Look at me, Hotel du Lac, Family and friends and the others (just a couple more) I’ve read. BUT it has been a while! I have been feeling to urge to read more of her but so far haven’t managed to actually do so.

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    • Hi Whisperinggums,
      I suppose Jane Austen could be accused of writing the same novel over and over. I think Anita Brookner will be one of those British woman writers that people will discover 50 years from now and wonder why she isn’t more famous.

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      • I think that’s a pretty good analogy and I hope you’re right about Brookner. Austen’s look similar on the surface but we close readers can see a lot of differences when we actually start to look at them, can’t we? And I think Brookner is the same.

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  3. Another great post. I shared this on my Facebook – you should look at adding a “like” button to your website.

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  4. Thanks for a great article, will add my Twitter account!

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  5. Hi John,
    Thank you for the Twitter. I’ll have a new post tomorrow night.

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  6. Thanks for a great site, will add my Facebook account!

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