Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1006
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 special song was “Arcady,” recalling the mythological land of green meadows and happiness. “Arcady,” she sang, “Arcady is always young.”
The contrasts among the characters are also simply drawn: The ambitious, somewhat sleazy, and emotionally stunted Owen versus the solid, wise, dutiful, discreet, and sly Charlie; the innocent, romantic, foolish, yet dogged Fay versus Julia. The character of Julia is the novel’s most striking creation: She is the elegant, unchanging, exquisite, coarse, demanding, and posturing beauty of the nightclubs of yesteryear, now slowly sliding into old age and death. Julia looms over Fay’s story.
Yet Fay is the narrator and the real center of the novel. Other characters, even Julia, share her problems and worries, but the reader lives them through Fay. Hers is the story of growing old; more and more, the reader hears how she adapts to the age of her body and to her emotions. Her story could be titled “the pursuit of happiness.” Fay pursues it mainly by doing what she can to attract and keep male companionship and tenderness, even though she realizes that her yearning may go beyond that for any one real person. What she ultimately obtains is unhappiness. Even her last modest hopes for the attentions of the cynical and blunt Dr. Alan Carter are destroyed in a farcical kitchen accident. Yet the novel transcends distinctions of gender in its general theme of loss: of youth, of innocence, of love, of companionship, and eventually of life. Some of the novel’s most moving passages evoke loss—what the sun strangely symbolizes to Fay.
If the novel is Fay’s story, Julia’s role in it is difficult to determine. From the beginning, Fay makes it clear that she never really liked Julia and that Julia did not like her. Still Fay was fascinated by her and found in Julia a range of significance. Fay contrasted husbands (Julia’s was nicer) and personalities (Julia’s was more forceful). At first, Julia figures as the Wife, someone who must be kept ignorant at all costs. She then becomes for Fay the incarnation of all that is horrible about the old age that Fay fears: Julia’s sagging face and aged body, her vanities, her demands, her gross remarks, her bodily functions, her indifference to others’ happiness, her joy in causing pain.
At the end of the novel, Julia plays yet another role in Fay’s life: She becomes the embodiment of the disillusioned and unswerving gaze of truth. In telling her story, Fay has two last surprises for the reader. Contrary to what she implies at the beginning of the novel, she has not ignored Julia for the five years before her death; on the contrary, Fay helped Julia escape to Spain to be with her beloved brother and thinks of her often. The brother, Gerald, is the second surprise. The reader discovers that he was Julia’s one real love; her disillusion with life has been the painful result of their separation in adolescence. Julia lost her Arcady very early. Brief Lives may not be rich in symbols, but Julia takes on a naturally symbolic place in Fay’s universe.
The last thing for which Fay hopes is not love but simple “significance.” She gets, if not exactly that, at least some pleasure from visits from her old friend Millie. Dr. Carter’s unsentimental directness has prepared Fay for her last vision of Julia, her “eyelids descending in amusement, not altogether good-natured,” as she looks down with merciless clarity upon Fay and Millie laughing together.
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