By writing her novel in the first person, Anita Brookner allows readers to get close to her narrator. Fay tells secrets and lets readers into her inmost thoughts without embarrassment. Long passages of reflection, which might interrupt a third-person narrative, seem natural here. The substance of the novel is in these reflections and not simply in the impact of events. In first-person narratives, flash-forwards—remarks that show the narrator is aware of the future—often occur naturally. Brookner uses them sparingly. When Fay does look forward, as when she says that “in the end” she had reason to feel uneasy about Julia, readers know that they must pay attention.

Fay reveals that Julia has just died, although readers may suspect that Julia died years before and that Fay simply lost track of her over the past five years. Fay also notes early in the story that both husbands died years before, so when their deaths are reported in her narrative, the reader is not surprised. Again, Brookner implies that the heart of her novel is not in dramatic actions. Fay does provide some surprises. Her moods shift suddenly, and forgotten characters reappear. Perhaps the biggest surprise comes when she and Charlie embark on six years of clandestine adultery. Fay never discovers whether Julia knew of the affair, and because of the first-person point of view, neither does the reader. The juicy details are not important.

That the novel is told by an older, intelligent but unimaginative, and rather ordinary woman may account for a certain plainness of style. Brookner’s descriptions are not quite so brilliant here as in her other novels; characters do not generally take on a mythological aura; and symbols are few and far between. One of Brookner’s favorite symbols, the sun, does appear, but shorn of most of its suggestiveness; Fay calls it “the symbol of all that has been lost.”

Brookner organizes the story in the way that a person such as Fay would have organized it: an introduction followed by a chronological retelling, with digressions that never get out of hand. Fay’s main narrative device is contrast. Her happy youth is obviously a prelude to later sorrows. Fay evokes her youth with sentimental details about her beloved parents and about the songs that she sang on the radio. The titles and words of these songs evoke the innocence and dreams of those early days: “Only Make-Believe” and “I’ll Be Loving You Always.” Her...

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