Readers will soon recognize Falling Slowly as Brookner’s own. Like Brookner’s previous novels, issued once a year beginning in 1981, this novel is short on action and long on reflection. The story is simple: After an unhappy childhood, two sisters, Miriam and Beatrice, move to London and live uneventful lives. One sister has a discreet love affair; one sister dies. Although the story moves forward at a glacial pace, the sisters’ thoughts are explored in minute detail. As in other Brookner novels, readers live at the core of its characters’ lives and know their vulnerabilities and their desires, both noble and ignoble.
The sisters grew up in a London suburb. Their parents were ill- suited, friendless, and full of complaints. During long Sunday- afternoon walks, the girls tried to imagine the more convivial lives that went on behind the fronts of the houses they passed. After their parents died, they moved to a comfortable apartment in a good London neighborhood. Beatrice, the older, was a pianist and worked as a professional accompanist. In her youth, she possessed a languid and stately beauty. She lived then and lives later on in a world of romantic fantasy. Miriam, on the other hand, is conventionally intelligent, university-educated, and more practical. She works as a translator, spending her days at the London Library. The two sisters get along moderately well, bickering yet loving each another.
As in most of Brookner’s later novels, the time scheme of Falling Slowlyis convoluted and sometimes confusing, as readers discover what happens only through the wandering thoughts of its ruminative characters. Although the novel opens with Miriam after Beatrice’s recent funeral, it soon focuses on the years leading up to that death. Simon Haggard, who has replaced Max Gruber as Beatrice’s agent, visits to tell her that he can get her no more jobs. Simon is an extremely handsome, brazen-haired younger man, and as he leaves the apartment, he and Miriam make an assignation that begins a long affair. Miriam also meets an understanding man named Tom Rivers. The center of the story ends with three events: Simon rejects Miriam, Beatrice dies, and Tom is killed in an airplane crash. Along the way, flashbacks tell more about the sisters’ unsatisfactory childhood, and Miriam features in a significant coda.
Falling Slowly is more complicated than this summary suggests. Although most of the novel is told from Miriam’s point of view, several chapters are seen with Beatrice’s eyes. Then, unexpectedly, one chapter takes place in Max’s mind, and one alternates between his thoughts and Beatrice’s. Miriam may be the most important character inFalling Slowly, but the novel shows more perspectives than hers.
Brookner has always rendered well the inner lives of adults. Although Beatrice is unique, she is like other Brookner women in suffering from a paralysis of nerve. While she was young she went through the motions of being a professional musician, had love affairs that did not touch her heart, and flirted with elderly men. From girlhood, however, she lived in a world of romance, waiting for an ideal hero to appear. She became passive, impractical, wistful, and faint-hearted. Men found her attractive but distant. The men she met came nowhere near her heroic ideal.
After Beatrice’s career ends, she knows her romantic dreams will not come true. In a hilarious chapter, Beatrice spars with her old admirer Max Gruber, who has returned from exile to try to get hold of her flat—by marrying her if necessary. Beatrice is tempted. She relishes the status she would achieve, and she fantasizes about married life on the Riviera. These selfish illusions are terminated by an unsettling experience in an art gallery. In her new mood of “terminal clairvoyance,” she contemplates a modest future with Max, but even these lowered expectations will not be realized. Her health has been failing, and in her weakened condition she becomes confused while crossing a street and is killed by a car.
Max Gruber’s thoughts are the most unlikely element in Falling Slowly. They are funny, but not pretty. Even though his cheerfulness and his energy are attractive, readers will wince when he tries to get Beatrice’s flat and when he abandons her after she suffers a slight stroke. Readers do not enter the minds of the novel’s younger men: Simon, Tom, or Jonathan, Miriam’s former husband. (Tom’s thoughts may inform a sentence or two.)
Most of the novel is told from Miriam’s point of view. She is an intelligent and reasonable person. She is a conscientious worker; she...
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