(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

All but ignored by her self-infatuated parents, whom she both fears and adores, Ruth Weiss spends her doleful childhood under the care of her stern and silent German grandmother. After the elder Mrs. Weiss’s death, Mrs. Maggie Cutler joins the household; her cheerfully careless and disorderly habits form a sharp contrast to the late grandmother’s somber ways. From this point onward, the household and its ostensibly adult inhabitants degenerate into dissolute slovenliness. Mrs. Cutler becomes the confidante of both parents but particularly of the rapidly aging and vain mother, whom she indulges in her self-absorption, fantasies, embroidered reminiscences, and preference for drink over food.

Ruth spends her girlhood immersed in books; at college, she feels more at home in the library than she does at home, where, alienated from the three childish adults, she pursues her own self-reliant and orderly routine. Her loneliness is somewhat alleviated by her friendship with Anthea, a beautiful, charming, and experienced girl who resembles Ruth’s mother. Humbly and patiently, Ruth bears anthea’s constant carping and advice about her appearance and meager social life, though Anthea’s much-vaunted conquests are largely imaginary.

Ruth forms a different kind of attachment to Richard Hirst, a handsome, dedicated counselor with an ulcer and an insatiable, officious interest in other people’s problems. Ruth is not one of those people; instead, as with Anthea, she is the listener, feeling inferior and infatuated.

Finally, in order to achieve some freedom to encourage Richard’s casual interest in her, Ruth moves away from home into a small two-room flat of her own. In an agony of terror, hope, and overanticipation, she invites Richard for dinner, which turns out to be a disaster in every way. Shortly afterward, she moves back to her parent’s home, Oakwood Court, where she can save some money while waiting to go to France in the fall to work on her dissertation, for which she has received a scholarship to study the female characters in Honore de Balzac’s novels.

Helen has stopped working and spends almost all of her time in bed, reading romantic novels, quarreling with Mrs. Cutler, drinking much, eating little, and growing weaker and weaker. George, having sold his bookshop to recently widowed, motherly Sally Jacobs, spends much of his time with her on the pretext of advising her, but in reality enjoying her culinary skill and undemanding affection. Ruth spends the long, lonely vacation working on her dissertation and walking tirelessly to pass the evening hours. She is becoming increasingly uneasy about the atmosphere of failure and disappointment in her home, where the air is as stagnant as the lives being led there.

In an attempt to bring about a change in her parents’ lives, Ruth proposes that they take a holiday. Though far from enthusiastic, they finally consent to spend ten days with Molly Edwards, a former comedy...

(The entire section is 1217 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In The Debut, Brookner’s first novel, the reader meets Dr. Ruth Weiss when she is a teacher of French literature in a university. She is forty years old and dresses in an old-fashioned way. From the beginning, Brookner evokes one of her major themes: the relation of stories to actual life. The narrator tells the reader enigmatically that Ruth’s life has been blighted by literature. Her students and colleagues are not aware of her past, which was intense and adventurous. The reader is taken back to Ruth’s past.

Ruth grows up in London as the only child of irresponsible parents—her English mother a fading actress and her European Jewish father a philandering book dealer. After her sensible grandmother dies, their household, with the help of a slovenly housekeeper, Mrs. Cutler, degenerates into shambles. Ruth, an intelligent girl, takes refuge in books; their stories and their happy endings become real to her. She believes that real girls, like Cinderella, get to the ball. Ruth believes that virtue is rewarded, as in the endings of novels by Charles Dickens. Like most of the central female figures of Brookner’s later novels, she is a lonely, rather plain, timid, thoughtful young woman. Even as a university student, she makes only a few friends; her attempt to make dinner for an attractive man is a disaster.

In her university work, she is fascinated by the French writer Honoré de Balzac, whose novels tell her unpleasant truths...

(The entire section is 506 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Gottlieb, Annie. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXV (March 29, 1981), p. 14.

Hale, Sheila. “Self-Reflection: Anita Brookner’s Heroines Do Not Fit Any Contemporary Mold. Do They Mirror the Author’s Own Soul?” in Saturday Review. XI (June, 1985), p. 35.

Harper’s Magazine. Review. CCLXII (April, 1981), p. 98.

Library Journal. Review. CVI (March 1, 1981), p. 574. Publishers Weekly. Review. CCXXVII (January 25, 1985), p. 92.