In Brief Lives we meet Fay and Julia in middle and late middle age. Both are married – and later widowed, affluent and childless. Fay was once a singer on the radio before her marriage, Julia an actress – who has ever since retained her sense of the dramatic. The novel opens with Fay reading of Julia’s death, a woman with whom she shared a great deal of her life until more recently.
“Julia died. I read it in The Times this morning. There was quite a substantial obituary, but what immediately fixed my attention was the photograph, one of those studio portraits of the late 1930’s or early 1940’s, all huge semi-transparent eyes, flat hair, and dark lipstick. I never liked her, nor did she like me; strange, then, how we managed to keep up a sort of friendship for so long.”
In her younger days, newly married, Fay lives in quiet fear of her mother-in-law Vinnie, who’s obsessive like adoration of her son Owen is intimidating. This relationship is mirrored to an extent in the “friendship” that develops between Fay and Julia, Julia the wife of Owen’s business partner. As the years pass, Julia - eleven years Fay’s senior – becomes more reliant upon Fay - in a purely selfish way, she manipulates Fay, who, knowing that she is in thrall to Julia seems unable to leave Julia behind, even when their husbands through whom they are connected have died. Julia is a kind of frail but elegant bully. Around Julia are the lonely women, who help her live quietly in her grand flat, including a slightly pathetic young woman Maureen who Julia obviously despises, and Julia’s former dresser from her theatrical days. Julia orders them around in her imperious way, little appreciating what they do for her, while telephoning Fay to wheedle another visit. As she herself ages, Fay must contend with the deaths of her mother and then her husband, finding that she is now alone, alters Fay’s view of herself and the world around her.
“I was very lonely during the weeks that followed my mother’s death. I knew that I should never again be all the world to anyone, as it says in the song. Normally I despise women who claim never to have got over their parents’ death, or who affirm that their fathers were the most perfect men who had ever lived. I despise them, but I understand them. How can any later love compensate for the first, unless it is perfect? My simple parents had thought me unique, matchless, yet they had let me go away from them without a murmur of protest.”
Although I enjoyed this novel enormously, Brief Lives won’t be my favourite Brookner novel, I think that would be A Closed Eye, or Look at Me, however it is a typical Brookner book and so if you were to read it and enjoy it, then it would be fair to say you will like her others too. Anita Brookner’s writing is beautiful, her observations of people in their quiet genteel lives, for me quite unparalleled. Though I find there is a coldness to Brookner’s writing, which is absent in the novels of such writers as Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym, who also examine the lives of upper or middle class women. With its overriding themes of ageing and nostalgia, Brief Lives is an intelligent and poignant novel, which benefits from a slow and considered reading.