At the beginning of Hotel du Lac (hotel of the lake), Edith Hope is thirty-nine years old. As usual in Brookner novels, she is less than beautiful. She is shy, meek, intelligent, and lonely. She is beginning an unexplained exile at an exclusive hotel on the banks of Lake Geneva in Switzerland.
Like Frances in Look at Me, she is a writer, but she is more than simply a satiric observer. In this novel, Brookner expands on the relationship of real life to fiction. Edith is an established writer of romances; she knows how to write stories with happy endings. She divides people into hares and tortoises: The hares are beautiful, selfish, and loved, like Nick and Alix in Look at Me; tortoises are meek, plain, and unloved, like Ruth in The Debut. Even though in real life the hares always win, Edith knows that her romances are popular because the women who read them are tortoises, and in her books the tortoises always win. Hares do not read books; they are too busy having fun.
The characters of Hotel du Lac are not so easily categorized, although Edith’s descriptions of them are brilliant and amusing. The pencil-thin Monica and an aging countess may be tortoises. A grotesque old lady and her plump, seductive daughter seem like hares. The elegant and charming Philip Neville is clearly not a tortoise. After Edith, the professional novelist, invents plots for them, however, she discovers her fictions are nothing like their true stories.
Edith herself is not exactly a tortoise. She has participated in life. From the beginning, Edith reveals part of her story in letters (unmailed) to David, a married man who has been her lover. Halfway through the novel, the reader learns why Edith is in Switzerland: She had to get out of town after leaving her fiancé waiting at the church. At the end of the novel, she is tempted to escape her lonely life forever when Philip Neville offers her a luxurious, loveless marriage. She rejects him and returns home to uncertainty.
Like other Brookner heroines, she has yearned for true love and lost it, but that does not mean she has given up on fiction. In a final letter, she tells David that she has always believed in the happy endings of her romance novels, though she now suspects they are not for her.