Anita Brookner’s Leaving Home

A friend recommended Anita Brookner’s novel Leaving Home; this was a book she’d loved and was intrigued by, partly because of Brookner’s writing style, which breaks the “show don’t tell” rule all over the place. This style is one my friend is drawn to because it’s similar to her own — this is the friend whose novel I’ve been reading and giving feedback on. Both Brookner and my friend write about consciousness, what it’s like to live in one’s mind, and do so in an analytical way — although there’s lots of emotion in the writing too — that involves a lot of explanation and summary. This style appeals to me greatly; while I like plot, what I’m really drawn to (and I know I’ve written about this at length already) is character and idea, and there’s something appealing in a writer breaking a commonly-known rule (show don’t tell) and writing something great while doing so.

Although I enjoyed reading Leaving Home, I have to say that as far as analytical, idea-driven, consciousness-exploring novels go, I’ve been having more fun reading my friend’s book than Brookner’s. I don’t think this is fair to Brookner, though; maybe reading two novels in this style at once is a little much, and at another time I would have been more absorbed in Brookner’s book. I liked it, definitely; I just was willing to set it aside a little too frequently.

The story is about 26-year-old Emma who decides to leave her quiet life with her mother in London and move to Paris to study landscape gardening. She longs for a life that is fuller and more exciting than what she’s known, but she also knows herself quite well and knows that she is most comfortable in the order and solitude she has left behind. She leaves home and then begins to wonder what “home” is and whether she will ever feel at home again. Although she learns to be independent and meets new people in Paris — Michael, with whom she takes very chaste walks, and Francoise, who lives the kind of exciting life she sometimes wishes for — she soon enough finds herself returning to London — and then traveling back and forth between the two cities — as she tries to figure out just what she can have and what she wants out of life.

The fundamental question she faces is whether she should push herself to change the kind of person she has been in order to live a more vibrant life, or whether she should accept the quietness, the isolation, the melancholy, as simply who she is, make peace with it, and go on. The landscape gardening she studies becomes a metaphor for this conflict — the careful control of nature she sees in the gardens mirrors her own self-controlled, orderly life, and as she feels ambivalently about her life, so she feels ambivalently about those gardens, wanting, at times, nothing more than to devote her life to studying them and, at others, rejecting the whole enterprise.

The writing is very calm and matter-of-fact, expressing Emma’s personality by both hiding and revealing the emotional turmoil underlying the surface quiet. The sentences themselves are generally simple and straight-forward, almost emotionless; for example, she says of her mother:

We passed the slow day together, reading. I was beginning to mirror her habits, her reclusion. When we embraced it was wordlessly, as if we understood each other perfectly. Away from her it seemed as if there were no end to leaving home.

But the emotion is there, after all, and maybe more present because it is so seldom acknowledged. In this sense, Brookner does show instead of tell — she leaves the reader to intuit the level of turmoil her narrator experiences. The narrator tells us much about her thoughts and feelings — in long analytical passages of summary — but there are also depths she hides.

I will certainly read more Brookner novels in the future; this is my second one (after Hotel du Lac), and I’ve liked both of them enough to be interested in reading them again, as well as picking up more of her numerous other novels.

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

8 responses to “Anita Brookner’s Leaving Home

  1. LK

    Maybe someday I’ll warm up to Brookner, but…she’s so intense. Normally I like intense books, but somehow, she just makes me feel gloomy and grousy, like I’ve been cooped up inside a musty house for a month of rainy days.

  2. This sounds like a good book. I’ve not read Brookner before so I’ll add it to my list. As a homebody sort of person I can understand the conflict of the main character. I imagine I’d love a vibrant, exciting life. But when I manage to creat even a weekend of that sort of life I find myself wishing for the comfort and calm of my quiet little house.

  3. I had a big Brookner phase at the end of my teens, and then I’ve not read anything by her since. She is one of those authors that might be best left to the past, as rereading might spoil her for me now. But then again…. maybe she’d be better? Great review, Dorothy, and one that really brought the taste of her work back to me.

  4. I haven’t read Brookner either but I must have like 3 or 4 of her books. They just sound like novels I’d really like. Great review of the book and yes, another Brookner novel I’ll be looking out for.

  5. I’ve never been all that interested in trying Brookner (probably reverse snobbery for how much praise she got in the review media when I worked at the library), for some reason, but you’re piquing my interest.

  6. This sounds like a wonderful book. I’ve also read a lot of Brookner’s books some years ago, though I haven’t read any of her newer work. I have always liked her, and I suspect I would like this novel. I tend to be more happy in solitude as well. Your review makes me want to go and find the book to discover what sort of life she ends up choosing!

  7. Great review – I’m not particularly familiar wiht Brookner but this makes me want to read at least this novel.

  8. LK — she IS very intense, and I wouldn’t want to read too many of her novels all at once; she’s someone I’ll return to occasionally, I think. Stefanie, I identified with the main character as well, which definitely added to the enjoyment. I’m a homebody too and can’t pretend otherwise! Litlove — it would be dangerous to go back at this point, wouldn’t it, to potentially spoil the idea you have of her? But maybe it’s tempting to read more recent things and see if she’s changed? Iliana, I think you’d like her! Emily — I can be like that too, not wanting to read somebody who’s getting so much praise — it’s a mistrust of popular feeling, for me. I sometimes try to get over it :) Danielle, well, I don’t know what you’d think of the ending, but I do think you’d enjoy the read! Courtney, thanks! If you do read her, I hope you enjoy it.

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