Faithful readers know that most of Anita Brookner’s novels center on a female character who passively yearns for love. Some, like Theo May inVisitors (1997), are aged and almost catatonic. Others, like Zoë Cunningham in The Bay of Angels, are younger and more energetic.
The reader first meets Zoë as a young girl in the 1950’s. She lives with her youngish widowed mother in a flat in Edith Grove, a genteel street in the farther reaches of Chelsea in southwest London. (Except for Zoë’s visit to a lawyer, the novel’s London scenes all take place in this part of the city.) They have just enough money to get by_for now. Even though their lives are occasionally interrupted by Millicent and Nancy, two rich and pushy distant relatives, they live affectionately together.
Enter Simon. Millicent and Nancy induce Zoë’s mother to attend a party, and there she meets Simon, a widower. He is a large, restless, rich, generous Jewish businessman who describes his age as being “nearly on the wrong side of seventy.” Zoë’s mother accepts his proposal of marriage, partly (Zoë later suspects) because both her money and her lease are running out. After the marriage, Zoë’s mother moves into Simon’s flat, while Zoë remains in Edith Grove, free from parental restraint. Simon regularly stocks Zoë’s personal bank account.
Simon also has a large house in Nice on the French Riviera, and he soon transports Zoë’s mother there, never (it turns out) to return. The summer before Zoë is to enter university, she visits them and enjoys the happiest months of her life. Zoë explores the town and gets to know many young men and women her own age. She has innocent sexual adventures.
The novel then moves quickly through Zoë’s early university years. She falls hopelessly in love with a fellow student, Adam Crowhurst, who is handsome, sexy, charming, and unfaithful. She invites him to accompany her to Nice at Easter, and the visit is a disaster. Adam’s youth and easy charm offend Simon, and when, in the middle of the night, Zoë and Adam detect Simon listening at their bedroom door, they decide to leave. Zoë finds her loyalties divided between her mother and her lover. She chooses her lover, and she has three wonderful days in Paris with him. Her decision does her little good, however, for Adam soon takes up with a new girl. Zoë, who by this time has embarked on a career as a researcher and editor, finds she feels new sympathy for her mother and Simon, and they are reconciled.
Everything changes when Simon dies in a fall. Zoë’s mother, always a weak reed, is traumatized. She is taken to a hospital where, to cure her trauma, she is put into a deep coma. Zoë now must grow up quickly. In London, she discovers that Simon was not nearly so rich as he seemed to be and that the house in Nice was not really his, but belongs to a nephew. In fact, when she returns to Nice, the house has been taken over by the appalling nephew and his even more appalling wife. They give her fifteen minutes to clear out her mother’s things.
This action begins a new chapter in Zoë’s life. She takes a little room in an old part of Nice. She visits her mother as often as she can, first at the hospital and later at the nursing home where her mother has been moved. Because she has so much free time, she walks a great deal, especially at night to the beach of the Bay of Angels. (Brookner heroines always walk a lot.) She gradually gets to know her mother’s physician, Dr. Balbi. She runs into him on her night walks and they sometimes talk; she realizes she is attracted to him and thinks he may be attracted to her.
When her mother fades and dies, Zoë winds up her affairs. Just when she is feeling most alone, Dr. Balbi makes his move. The novel’s last chapter describes the satisfactory life she and her new lover have worked out: Zoë works in London for part of the year, and when she returns to Nice for the hot months, she has dinner every night with Dr. Balbi and his sister. She and Balbi are intimate when they take frequent trips to nearby towns. All has worked out moderately well.
The story in itself is interesting, though some readers may find the details of Zoë’s life in Nice somewhat dull and repetitious. The plot creaks when Zoë’s mother is kept in a coma, but in the main the story is marvelously well told. Zoë is the first-person narrator, and the reader gets a vivid sense of her growing up slowly, and slowly developing the sympathy and wisdom that will allow her to achieve a moderately happy state. Her mother is a bit shadowy at first, probably because the youthful Zoë does not know enough to understand her. Later on, her few speeches vividly...
(The entire section is 1920 words.)