Brief Lives

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 611

BRIEF LIVES returns to familiar ground for Anita Brookner: the lives of women. The narrator, Fay Langdon, spurred by an obituary of Julia Wilberforce, an old acquaintance, recalls their friendship and her own romantic history. Beginning with the story of her congenial girlhood and her idealized notions of love from the movies, Fay recounts her disappointing life, including her marriage to Owen Langdon, a law partner of Julia’s husband, Charlie Morton. When Owen dies unexpectedly, Fay feels freed from her wifely social duties and constraints, but she is quickly caught up in an affair with Charlie. The result is moral conflict and more attending to the wishes of a man. Julia never outwardly acknowledges the affair. A tormenting, narcissistic woman, she gets her vengeance on Fay years after Charlie’s death. Once more, Fay has hopes of a companion in Dr. Alan Carter, a divorced professional man, but Julia ruins her chances by drawing on Fay’s unexpiated guilt over her adulterous affair and by demanding Fay’s attendance and aid on the very evening she is to cook a meal for Dr. Carter. Despite their differences, Fay and Julia’s relationship persists, offering a depth of insight into the lives of aging widows.

Brookner demonstrates in BRIEF LIVES stylistic similarities to Henry James and Edith Wharton, two writers whose work she admires. Like them, Brookner explores the daily social affairs and thoughts of her characters, focusing on refinement of feeling. An accomplished stylist, Brookner uses her prose to convey precisely the narrator’s voice, at once halting and yet balanced and poised. With their sophisticated style and sentiment, Brookner’s novels are not for the faint-hearted nor worldly adventurous; for those who seek insight into the human heart, BRIEF LIVES, like her other novels, is a treasure.


The Atlantic. CCLXVIII, September, 1991, p. 124. A review of Brief Lives.

Chicago Tribune. July 14, 1991, XIV, p. 6. A review of Brief Lives.

The Christian Science Monitor. August 5, 1991, p. 13. A review of Brief Lives.

Hosmer, Robert E., Jr., ed. Contemporary British Women Writers: Narrative Strategies. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. Hosmer’s essay discusses Brookner and her heroines as exiles. Provides background for reading Brief Lives. A good bibliography is included.

Kenyon, Olga. Women Novelists Today: A Survey of English Writing in the Seventies and Eighties. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. According to Kenyon, among contemporary women novelists Brookner is a special case: She understands feminism, but her heroines usually remain within the confines of the traditional women’s novel.

Kenyon, Olga. Women Writers Talk: Interviews with Ten Women Writers. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1990. Includes an interesting interview with Brookner on how she writes and how she began to write.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 7, 1991, p. 3. A review of Brief Lives.

The Nation. CCLIII, September 9, 1991, p. 274. A review of Brief Lives.

New Statesman and Society. III, August 31, 1990, p. 35. A review of Brief Lives.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVI, July 21, 1991, p. 14. A review of Brief Lives.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, April 12, 1991, p. 44. A review of Brief Lives.

Sadler, Lynn Veach. Anita Brookner. Boston: Twayne, 1990. A very useful opening chapter surveys Brookner’s life and works in detail. Written before Brief Lives.

Skinner, John. The Fictions of Anita Brookner: Illusions of Romance. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. The introduction treats critical opinions, Brookner’s intellectual background, and the autobiographical nature of her works. A demanding and a stimulating book, although it does not treat Brief Lives specifically.

Time. CXXXVII, June 24, 1991, p. 65. A review of Brief Lives.

The Times Literary Supplement. August 24, 1990, p. 889. A review of Brief Lives.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, July 28, 1991, p. 12. A review of Brief Lives.

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