Family life swings endlessly between hope and grief, as the promising children of today so often become the disappointed—and disappointing-adults of tomorrow. That common shift of fortunes is the subject of Anita Brookner’s fifth novel, Family and Friends, a finely tuned and ulti-
mately engrossing look at a wealthy English family over the course of 30 years.
Brookner, who won the 1984 Booker McConnell Prize for Hotel du Lac, opens her tale with a description of a 1930s photograph dominated by Sofka, the widowed matriarch of the clan. Around her stand her four children, Frederick, Alfred, Mimi and Betty. To a casual observer theirs is a happy, enviable lot. But Brookner gradually exhumes their secret lives, exposing the sorrow and
hidden weaknesses that eventually spoil their dreams. Amazingly, Brookner makes their misery a delight to observe: the novel binds the reader the way some families bind their members, against all reason.
Still, Family and Friends is slow to cast its spell. Brookner’s brittle, rather formal style at first tends to turn her characters into lifeless china dolls. But 50 pages into the narrative those figurines begin to move. The catalyst is Sofka’s impetuous younger daughter, Betty. When she scandalizes her family by running away to Paris with Frank Cariani, her dancing instructor, Family and Friends finally begins to sizzle. The eldest son, Frederick, who has allowed Betty to escape, loses his primacy in the family, yielding his place to Alfred, who will spend the rest of his life resenting his responsibilities. And the gentle Mimi, who was also in love with Frank, endures such a catastrophic disappointment that she can never love again. As those disasters unfold, Brookner’s distancing style begins to seem perfectly appropriate: her almost clinical detachment allows the reader to grasp the full, sad dimensions of her characters’ plights.
Brookner’s portraits are masterful, shading off to ambiguity and mystery at the edges. The one exception is Sofka, who is little more than a pivot point for Brookner’s observations. But Alfred is a joy to watch. Trapped by his sense of duty to his mother and siblings, he never marries. Instead, he boils with secret resentments and dreams of escaping to a life of unrestrained hedonism. It infuriates him that his mother prefers the irresponsible Frederick, who finds happiness married to the daughter of a rich hotel owner in Italy. But as his sister Mimi points out, “The good live unhappily ever after.” Certainly that aphorism is appropriate for Mimi herself, who lacks the devilishness and self-interest to seize what she wants. Yet her sister, Betty, who has those qualities, also suffers, ending up as the meanspirited, lonely wife of a California TV director.
That three of Sofka’s four children come to grief renders Brookner’s vision tragic. But all Sofka’s progeny remain extremely well off. Theirs is a tragedy of inner desolation, not of outward circumstance. Indeed, Family and Friends can be read as a condemnation of the British class system, in which spiritual and material wealth rarely go hand in hand. Still, it would be wrong to push that interpretation too far. Family and Friends enthralls because Sofka’s family could be anyone’s—hoping for the best, but ultimately finding more thorns than roses.
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