(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Like a number of Anita Brookner’s previous heroines, Claire Pitt is essentially lonely—almost isolated from the world around her. As a single woman living alone since the death of her mother, she has only one close friend, no prospects for marriage, and a job that brings her into contact with very few people. Indeed, her job is as solitary as her personal life, for she has been engaged by the elderly owners of the Ex Libris bookshop to transcribe the nature articles and advice columns that St. John Collier (father of the store’s owners) wrote in the 1950’s. It is congenial work, in spite of—or perhaps because of—its relative isolation in the basement of a tranquil secondhand bookshop. What Claire particularly likes is contemplating the evidently calm and serene world of the 1950’s as depicted by the magazines in which St. John’s articles appeared.

Isolation began in Claire’s childhood when her widowed mother remarried a structural engineer unused to children and their noise. Consequently, Claire learned to live quietly, mainly in her room, reading. When her stepfather suffered a stroke, incapacity made him dictatorial, peevish, and short-tempered; Claire’s mother spent the rest of her married life nursing this man until a second stroke brought his death.

In the opening pages of the novel, Claire as narrator announces her two convictions: one is that “everyone is profoundly eccentric,” the other that “everything is connected.” By the latter she means that she can imagine links between events that might seem unrelated. In other words, Claire writes fictions in her head, although she tends to take them not as fictions but as descriptions of reality. Unfortunately, she does not grasp that her two convictions are to some extent contradictory, and hence she is often surprised when the connections she imagines between people and events turn out to be incorrect. To this extent, then, the novel has a metafictional flavor, though rather than use this postmodern term, it might be just as well to use an old-fashioned one: unreliable narrator.

Superficially, Undue Influence resembles an old-fashioned love story with an unhappy ending. While working in the bookshop one day, Claire is distracted from her typing by the presence of a handsome, impeccably dressed customer. He turns out to be a Martin Gibson in search of German Romantic poetry. Claire promises to deliver the book he wants if she can locate it, which she does, only to discover that Martin is married to an invalid. There are direct parallels between the Gibsons and Claire’s own parents, only in the Gibsons’ case it is the wife who ruthlessly exploits her illness to dominate and manipulate her husband. Cynthia Gibson asks Claire to visit again, and this time Claire brings her best friend, Wiggy, but the visit is unsatisfactory as Cynthia wants not visitors but an audience—people to witness her domination of Martin. After their second visit, also a failure, Claire receives a note from Sue, Cynthia’s day nurse, indicating that Cynthia has died. Events unfavorable to others seem to be moving in Claire’s favor, as Martin’s attentions to her suggest romance. Moreover, when Hester Collins falls and breaks her wrist and Claire takes over at the bookshop, everything seems poised for an almost Victorian happy ending: marriage and the management, if not the ownership, of a congenial business.

This is a contemporary novel, however, not a Victorian melodrama. Dinner with Martin at a pretentious restaurant with show-off food is not a success, and Muriel seems not to trust Claire’s management of the bookstore. Claire invites Martin to dinner at her flat, and he ends up spending the night, but everything soon crumbles: Martin goes to Italy for a holiday with friends, and Muriel announces that she is selling the shop. Soon, Claire is unemployed, and although Martin again comes to Claire’s for dinner, she realizes that there is nothing between them. As Claire prepares to take a holiday, she visits Wiggy and learns that Sue and Martin are engaged. “This was the one connection I had failed to make. It was the greatest failure of my life and no future success could ever obliterate it.”

For Claire, future successes seem unlikely. Claire herself is in many ways an attractive person, to whom success in some form seems due. The world around her, however, does not seem conducive to romance or...

(The entire section is 1797 words.)