The Bay of Angels

( 2 )


Despite growing up with a widowed and reclusive mother, young Zoë Cunningham retains an unshakable faith in storybook happy endings. When her mother, Anne, finally decides to remarry, Zoë is thrilled with her prospective stepfather, Simon Gould, who is not only wealthy, but also kind and generous. Simon’s affection for his new family allows Zoë to pursue what she thinks is an independent life: her own apartment in a fashionable part of London, a university education, casual affairs, and carefree holidays at ...
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Bay of Angels

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Despite growing up with a widowed and reclusive mother, young Zoë Cunningham retains an unshakable faith in storybook happy endings. When her mother, Anne, finally decides to remarry, Zoë is thrilled with her prospective stepfather, Simon Gould, who is not only wealthy, but also kind and generous. Simon’s affection for his new family allows Zoë to pursue what she thinks is an independent life: her own apartment in a fashionable part of London, a university education, casual affairs, and carefree holidays at Simon’s villa in Nice. When a series of unexpected calamities intervene, Zoë learns that the idyllic freedom she enjoys has come at a steep price. To preserve both her mother’s and her own sense of wellbeing, Zoë must discern the real motives of the strangers on whom she now depends, including the silent and mysterious man whose nocturnal movements have attracted her attention.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“One of her very best. . . . A pure delight to read.” –San Francisco Chronicle

“An unusually beautiful and heartbreaking book.” –Detroit Free Press

“Brookner’s wit glows like a kind of background radiation that charges everything here. . . . She has never been more clearsighted, more compellingly brilliant.” –The Christian Science Monitor

“A wise story about competing impulses and the trade-offs we make to accommodate them.” –The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Washington Post Book World
Brookner does it as well as it can be done. She writes beautifully.
Ron Charles
It's become a cliche to call Anita Brookner the modern Henry James, but with her latest novel, she's outdone the fusty old master. Some future genius will have to be called the modern Anita Brookner. The Bay of Angels, her 20th elegant novel, perfects an examination of loneliness that threatened to grow monotone in her last few books. Yet here, remarkably, she makes another quantum leap into psychological depth, splitting the atoms of human nature and tracing the particles that veer off. Her narrator is a compulsively analytical young woman named Zoe Cunningham. She lives in quaint isolation on the margins of life and London with her widowed mother, "a woman in embryo." Despite their static circumstances, Zoe is sustained by the lessons of those earliest books, the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm, and later by the stories of travail and triumph by Charles Dickens. "I was willing to believe in the redeeming feature," she notes wistfully, "the redeeming presence that would justify all of one's vain striving, would dispel one's disappointments, would in some mysterious way present one with a solution in which one would have no part, so that all one had to do was to wait, in a condition of sinless passivity, for the transformation that would surely take place." When a wealthy, older man falls in love with her mother, the fairy godmother seems to have come through after all. Simon is loving, generous, and paternal, just the sort of gentleman to whom Zoe can relinquish her gentle mother and go off to live a modern, liberated life. "It was providential," she writes. "All seemed to agree on that point." Simon moves Mrs. Cunningham to his modern villa in Nice, France, sets Zoe up with her own flat, and all live happily ever after. "Though it satisfied the requirements of legend," Zoe concedes darkly, "it made me aware of what all the stories left out, namely the facts of what happened next. The stories had ended on the highest possible note, whereas what they should have indicated was the life that followed." Indeed, what follows in this novel is rather sad. Simon suddenly dies and his affluence evaporates. Zoe and her mother find themselves without money or a place to live. More ominous, though, her mother's energy begins seeping away. Visiting her in a sanatorium, Zoe finds herself riding conflicting currents of love and dread. She's wholly devoted, but she resents the loss of freedom, the burdensome need to parent the parent. As Zoe travels back and forth between London and Nice, the circumference of her own life begins to shrink toward the center of her mother's health. Her emotional turmoil is compounded by the Kafkaesque treatment she receives from the doctors and nurses and the thicket of old-fashioned attitudes held by other women at the nursing home. This may sound dreary in summary, but Brookner's wit glows like a kind of background radiation that charges everything here - even the tragedy. She has never been more clearsighted, more compellingly brilliant. When Zoe begins seeing her mother's doctor, a man who "gave the impression of having worn a double-breasted suit from a tender age," the fairy tale threatens to rise up again, but Zoe won't fall for that. Somehow, she must negotiate the old desire for male salvation and the modern insistence on barren autonomy. It's a conundrum worthy of Brookner's relentless analysis, and it eventually yields, if not an answer, at least profound insight.
From The Critics
To read the novels of Anita Brookner is a great deal like watching the patient gray donkeys that descend along steep paths to the floor of the Grand Canyon. Their motion is deliberate, practiced and exact, each advance scrupulous because the whole journey depends on getting it right. One rash move and the fall would be absolute, so there is never a careless step. The ledge is too narrow for extravagance, and yet the bare progression, without fanfare or wasted motion, is breathtaking. The Bay of Angels, Brookner's twentieth novel, exemplifies this minimalist mastery.

Zoe Cunningham, the novel's main character, has never known her father. Deeply attached to her widowed mother, Anne, Zoe leads a quiet childhood of "sinless passivity," believing, as her reading of fairy tales seems to indicate, "that I need make no decisions on my own behalf, for destiny or fate would always have the matter in hand." Her mother seems content to regard herself as destined, too—for unchanging, lifelong solitude. That is until she meets and marries a generous widower and is swept off to live in his house overlooking the Bay of Angels in Nice, France. Zoe, left to her own devices, has a love affair with the faintly Byronic Adam, who attracts women "by his considerable beauty and, it must be said, by his fearless bad manners." High-handed and unfaithful, he somehow cannot keep from treating Zoe better than he means to. It is something of a relief when he passes out of her life, although what follows is the weary pilgrimage of adulthood, or as Zoe puts it, "a world of accident, of illness, of poor company, in which it was no longer possible to think of a good outcome."

Herstepfather dies, leaving much less to live on than anticipated, and her adored mother becomes an invalid. In her illness, she gradually recedes. Anne still possesses her infallible taste and dry, perfect wit, but only Zoe attaches her to life, and we intuit that for her daughter's sake, Anne makes that attachment as faint and tenuous as she dares.

Among so much that is shadowy, the reader and Zoe alike welcome the striding, uncompromising presence of her mother's physician, Dr. Balbi. "He was now," Zoe tells us, "as he had perhaps not intended to be: dour, self-sufficient, powerful." The notion of becoming what one never intends, and making the best of it, is so much a part of adulthood that it is almost obvious. Yet stating it so fast and neatly has the force of wit. Encountering Zoe one evening, the doctor buys her an herbal tea. Obliquely they discuss the gravity of her mother's condition. The nuns who care for her could not do the work they do, the doctor says, if they were not convinced of eternal life. "What a prospect. I only want one life," Zoe replies. "That is all you will get," the doctor answers. He is so curt she scarcely knows whether he likes or dislikes her, and yet their conversation, although tactful, has an intimate frankness.

So deftly does Brookner subdue her material, so complete is the world she creates, that it is surprising to realize that this story is set in the decades from the 1960s to the present. References to airplanes, a trip to Atlanta, a radio, a Chanel suit, seem incongruous, almost anachronistic (although, of course, they are not) in sentences of such measured, nineteenth-century perfection.

There is something sobering in a life examined with such a penetrating gaze. The rush of time is lifelike—childhood melts into adulthood, adulthood into middle age. Personality remains mysteriously intact, but not hopes, and not confidence in one's own blessedness. In some novels, being the hero confers a most favored status: Every action is bathed in the narrator's golden regard. Not here. No one in a Brookner novel is special enough to avoid the leveling quality of life itself. In return, however, Brookner offers a curious stylistic dignity. She may fully understand her characters, but her manner of writing affords some essential privacy. Describing a beautiful night along the coast, for example, Zoe suddenly observes, "It would have been entirely possible for me to walk out into the sea. That I did not do so was the result of a sense of duty to myself. I wanted to know the rest of the story, however it might turn out." It is a shock to realize that she is in such despair that suicide is a possibility.

Oddly, the result of so mannered a style is something very close to life, its transparency, its way of being obvious and ungraspable, all at the same moment. For all our narrator's quietness, she holds the main point firmly in mind. Although she loves her mother, "she had come to represent a way of life that horrified me: a faded, regretful life in which one's own desires counted for so little that they could easily be ignored." Zoe has at last outgrown the virtuous passivity urged on her by fairy tales. —Penelope Mesic

(Excerpted Review)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The heroines of Brookner's 20 novels are usually passive, introspective, lonely women, leading quiet lives of muted emotions. Zoe Cunningham is typical of the breed at the beginning of this excellent novel. The daughter of a self-contained widow, Zoe is pleased when her mother agrees to marry elderly, wealthy and generous Simon Gould, who carries his new wife off to his villa in the south of France. When, after a few months, Simon dies suddenly, surprising events unfold. Simon, it seems, was about to run out of money and did not even own the sumptuous villa. Zoe, whose university degree has led to a series of freelance editing jobs in London and, more important, the freedom that she craves arrives in Nice to find that her mother has suffered a breakdown and is in a clinic undergoing a sleeping cure. Ensuing events call for more action, assumption of responsibility and displays of emotion than Brookner's heroines generally demonstrate, creating dramatic tension. Beset by worries and difficult decisions, Zoe belatedly understands the limitations of her independent life: "I have the terrible freedom of which others are justifiably afraid." In working through the issues of female liberation and its compromises, and her fears about loneliness and a solitary old age, Zoe arrives at a grateful accommodation to reality and "a condition of acceptance" that finds her in a satisfying relationship. Brookner's economical prose moves gracefully and flawlessly, and her story acquires a mesmerizing intensity rooted in the reality of the events she describes with consummate skill. (May) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Zoe Cunningham, the latest in a long line of ruminative, solitary, and otherworldly Brookner heroines (Undue Influence), has grown up believing in the promise of fairy tales, including Prince Charming and happy endings. But when life doesn't turn out to be a fairy tale, she longs to withdraw from the world in a way she acknowledges is unacceptable for a woman of her generation. Also, like so many other Brookner women, she has adopted the role of dutiful daughter to her single mother. Life changes abruptly after her mother marries an older man, who whisks her off to live in Nice. With her mother gone, Zoe enters university, has an unhappy love affair, and goes on to find employment as a researcher. But it isn't long before her stepfather dies and her mother becomes an invalid who needs her once again. In Nice, Zoe's mettle is tested as she negotiates her stepfather's estate and her mother's continuing care. It comes as a pleasant surprise that a Brookner heroine turns out to have the inner resources to see her through life's vicissitudes and find a measured happiness. The dependable elegance of Brookner's writing should be enough to justify purchase of this book, especially for libraries trying to collect her complete oeuvre. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/00.] Barbara Love, Kingston Frontenac P.L., Ontario Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The prolific Brookner (Undue Influence) marries subject and style in this slight novel about a woman of stoic rectitude who measures her success in life by her ability to adapt and make do. Zoë grows up in contented isolation with her widowed mother until she is 16, when her mother, perhaps less content, marries the kindly but domineering Simon, who whisks Zoë's mother away to a villa in southern France. He provides generously for Zoë, but though she is invited to spend as much time as she likes in France, she prefers life in her own flat. Living alone, she graduates from college, begins the perfect bloodless career as researcher, and has an on-again-off-again affair with a not-very-nice young man. When he dumps her for good, she does not let herself grieve openly. And while she mentions having friends, none are visible or even imaginable. She accepts her lonely life as perfectly adequate. Then her stepfather dies, practically penniless as it turns out, and her mother sinks into a vague, languorous illness. Zoë spends the rest of the story and her meager finances going back and forth between England and France, finalizing the estate and visiting her mother, first in the hospital and then at a rest home run by nuns. She develops a prickly but affection-flecked connection with her mother's doctor, an episode as close to romantic love as Zoë is likely to get. After her mother inevitably fades away and dies, Zoë finds a compromise between the safe detachment of her London life and the slightly more emotionally charged experience France affords. While her language is as beautifully precise and insightful as ever, Brookner's reticence is too much like Zoë's. She holds her characters, including Zoë, at such a distance that they never become interesting in a novel so understated that it ends up undercooked as well.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375727603
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/9/2002
  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 954,554
  • Product dimensions: 5.19 (w) x 8.02 (h) x 0.49 (d)

Meet the Author

Anita Brookner lives in London.
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Read an Excerpt

I read the Blue Fairy Book, the Yellow Fairy Book, and the stories of Hans Andersen, the Brothers Grimm, and Charles Perrault. None of this was groundwork for success in worldly terms, for I was led to think, and indeed was minded to think, of the redeeming situation or presence which would put to rights the hardships and dilemmas under which the characters, and I myself, had been labouring. More dangerously, it seemed to me that I need make no decisions on my own behalf, for destiny or fate would always have the matter in hand. Although I was too sensible, even as a child, to believe in a fairy godmother I accepted as part of nature's plan that after a lifetime of sweeping the kitchen floor I would go to the ball, that the slipper would fit, and that I would marry the prince. Even the cruel ordeals undergone by the little match girl, or by Hansel and Gretel, would be reversed by that same principle of inevitable justice which oversaw all activities, which guided some even if it defeated others. I knew that some humans were favoured -- by whom? by the gods? (this evidence was undeniable) -- but I was willing to believe in the redeeming feature, the redeeming presence that would justify all of one's vain striving, would dispel one's disappointments, would in some mysterious way present one with a solution in which one would have no part, so that all one had to do was to wait, in a condition of sinless passivity, for the transformation that would surely take place.

This strikes me now as extremely dangerous, yet parts of this doctrine seemed overwhelmingly persuasive, principally because there were no stratagems to be undertaken. One had simply to exist, in a state of dreamy indirection, for the plot to work itself out. This was a moral obligation on the part of the plot: there would be no place for calculation, for scheming, for the sort of behaviour I was to observe in the few people we knew and which I found menacing. This philosophy, the philosophy of the fairy tale, had, I thought, created my mother, whose strange loneliness was surely only a prelude to some drastic change of fortune in which she need play no active part. I therefore accepted as normal that she should spend her days sitting and reading, engaging in minimal outdoor activity, for surely these were the virtuous prerequisites for vindication of some sort, for a triumph which would confound the sceptics, whom I was also able to recognize. She was a widow; I was hardly aware of the lack of a father, for I accepted that the road to validation was in essence one of solitude, and rather than engage in some productive occupation I preferred my mother to wait for the solution to her situation to be presented as none of her own volition.

I was thus aware of her unhappiness but able to bear it, with the help of the knowledge and indeed wisdom I had culled from my reading. As a child I did not perceive her longings, which had been cruelly cut short by my father's premature death. Nor was I much interested in him, for he belonged to prehistory; I had no image of him other than as a face bending over me, and a photograph of a slim young man in an academic gown. Even the photograph conformed to my belief, for it showed someone who was not quite grown up, and therefore a fit companion for my mother who was not quite grown up either, a woman in embryo whose maturity was still far off. This made me comfortable with my own position, a fit descendant of a couple on the verge of existence who were merely undergoing some form of trial and who were surely approaching some beneficent outcome which would make even my father's death assume acceptable proportions. He had died, and my mother had survived his death. Her unhappiness, I was confident, would be overturned, as any term of trial must be. It sometimes seemed to me that my father's disappearance had merely prepared the way for a story very much like the ones I was so fond of reading. I was not then aware of the universal desire for a happy ending: I would not have understood such an abstraction. But I did know, or was convinced, that our story would have a happy ending, not realizing that there is no proper ending in human affections until time provides an ending to which all must submit.

The fact that we were of the same species (even my absent father contributed his very real silence to our own relative silence) merely emphasized the gulf that existed between ourselves and the harsher world outside our flat in Edith Grove. At least I assumed that it was harsher: how could it not be? When my mother walked soundlessly from one room to another, sat reading in the quiet afternoons, or carefully watered the plants on our little balcony, I was not aware of any lack or discrepancy in our lives, or not until some outward agency disrupted our slow peaceful rhythm. Our street was nearly silent, almost abandoned by the late morning: I could be trusted to make my own way to school. After I had done my homework in the evening I would take up my position at the window. I liked to watch the lights go on in other houses, as if preparing for a wayfarer's return. My reading had conditioned me to think in terms of wayfarers, so that footsteps on the pavement gave me an agreeable sensation that the stories contained enough authenticity to justify the fact that I still read them.

No visit disturbed our evenings, nor did we wish for any. It was only at the weekends, when my mother said, 'Better put your books away. The girls are coming,' that I resigned myself to a lesson in reality which would be instructive but largely unwelcome. I feared this lesson on my mother's behalf; I knew instinctively that her good manners were inadequate protection against the sentimental tactlessness of our visitors, who surely thought their presence something of a comfort to my mother and even to myself. 'They mean well,' said my mother. 'They are good women.' But we both knew that this was a lame excuse.

'The girls', as opposed to 'the boys' (their husbands, twin brothers in the hotel business), were as devoted as two sisters might have been, although they were not related. Rather it was my mother and I who were related to them, through my great-grandfather, who had married twice and had raised two separate families, one eventually resulting in my father and the other in the boys, who did not accompany their wives on these visits, although they might have done, on some vague grounds of consanguinity. What family feeling there was seemed to be in the gift of the girls, Millicent and Nancy, who faithfully kept up with my mother, whether through charity or genuine interest. It seemed to intrigue, even to excite them, that a woman of my mother's age could live without the presence of a man; they regarded her with pity, with anxiety, but also with curiosity, as if in her place they would have gone mad. They had little self-control, were obtuse, and kind, but also avid. Neither had children. Their days seemed, to hear their anecdotes, full of activity: shopping, maintenance, which was of a high order, visits, and then back home to the boys for dinner and an evening of bridge, at which they would complain incessantly, their beautiful complacency fracturing slightly to reveal a perhaps unguessed-at discontent.

Despite their physical perfection, which impressed and unselfishly delighted my mother, they were women whose very real innocence was but one feature of their glossy appearance, nurtured solemnly, and thus providing a fit basis for compliments. Drawn together by the accident of their marriages, they remained devoted to each other by virtue of an extraordinary similarity of temperament. They were sensuous, but not sensual, felt relieved that neither one of them was entirely satisfied by her husband's company, took refuge in material comfort and busy social arrangements. Marriage was no less than their right; it was also their alibi, protecting them from any form of censure, and may have been entered into precisely for that reason. My mother was well aware of this, as they may not have been; I deduced this from her kindness, which had something protective about it, as if they needed to be sheltered from certain realizations. I accepted them as a fact of nature. Their anxiety, unusual in very handsome women, was directed towards my mother, for whom they felt genuinely sorry. Their visits were mercy visits, in the sense that there are mercy killings, with the same admixture of motives.

I disliked them because they interrupted our peaceful lives, with their incessant suggestions as to how my mother might improve her solitary condition. I disliked them because these suggestions made no provision for myself. She was urged to, in their words, socialize, and offered the occasional invitation to their parties, which she attended with a martyr's stoicism. I was also aware that they discussed her, deriving some comfort from her sadness, her obvious inactivity. I could see that they meant well, since their visits were occasions of lavish generosity: boxes of cakes were produced, a beautiful pineapple, and cartons of strawberries brought up from the car by Millicent's driver; at the same time I was puzzled that their real kindness gave them no legitimization in my eyes. My favourite myths did not apply to them, for I could not in all conscience see them as the Ugly Sisters. I simply perceived that they had not waited, and therefore had not been rewarded, as my mother would surely be rewarded. It is not impossible that they perceived this as well.

'You both look splendid,' said my mother with a smile. This fact at least was incontrovertible. The girls habitually looked splendid since most of their time was devoted to that end. Millicent in particular was immaculate; her beautifully manicured hand frequently patted the upward sweep of her imposing coiffure, which was cared for every day by a local hairdresser who had no objection to sending one of his juniors to the house in Bedford Gardens to brush away any imperfections that the early morning might have wrought. Millicent was the younger of the two, plump, wide-eyed, expectant. Nancy, by contrast, was tough, imperious, a heavy smoker, granted seniority by virtue of having lived abroad, in various of the brothers' hotels, mainly in the region between Nice and the Italian border. I saw that she could be relied upon to look after Millicent, but that neither of them would look after my mother. Once, when some malaise or illness had kept my mother at home, they had sent a deputy, 'poor Margaret', who had been adopted as a child by Nancy's parents and who performed the valuable function of looking after both girls. She lived in a flat in Nancy's house, which was conveniently situated in the same street as that occupied by Millicent and her husband, Eddie. I disliked Margaret even more than the girls, since I sensed that she was willing to break out, could hardly be constrained, in fact, and conformed to others plans for her only because she was too lazy, or perhaps too fearful, to strike out on her own. In this she differed from my mother, who, though passive, had not altogether forgone courage, as I, and perhaps the girls, were obliged to recognize.

'If only you'd learn to play bridge,' lamented Millie, to which Nancy rejoined, 'Leave her alone. How do you know she hasn't got a secret life?

This was taken as a risqué remark, although it would have been quite in order for my mother to take a lover (I thought 'a suitor'), in which case they would have been shocked, and even disappointed. They did not suggest that she get a job. In the 1950s it was thought quite reasonable for women to stay at home and live a peaceful semi-detached semi-suburban life. The great awakening, which was supposed to benefit my generation, had not yet taken place. My father had left a little money, the remains of a legacy, which was supplemented by a small annual cheque from some investments: we lived frugally but decently, unlike the girls, who served mainly as showcases for their husbands' success. This too was thought quite normal at the time, although they seemed to me idle and pampered. Their discontent, which they would furiously have denied, came from purposelessness. In any event, although enjoying the spectacle of their prosperity, I preferred the propriety of our own circumstances, which seemed to fit in with the preordained plan which I knew from my early reading. I did not know, nor, I think, did my mother, that circumstances can be changed, or at least given a helping hand. There seemed to be something natural, even unavoidable, about our lives, which may be why they were so peaceful. Any dissent, any criticism, came from the girls, fascinated as they were by our unmanned condition. Our function was to set their own lives on course, to bring their many advantages into relief. My mother played her part. I merely looked on.

'What eyes that child has,' said Nancy. 'Has she nothing to do?

'She reads a lot,' said my mother. 'We both do. Zoë, have you thanked the girls for the strawberries?

It was true that I read a lot, but by now I had graduated to adult reading. Dickens had my full attention, for surely in those novels he was telling the same story of travail and triumph. The additional benefit, apart from the eccentric characters, with their eccentric names, was that many of these travails were undertaken by young men of peerless disposition. This was welcome proof that such life experiences were universal, and, more important, could be, and usually were, brought about while suffering an initial handicap -- wicked stepparents, an indigent family -- which the heroes (for David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickleby were undoubted heroes) could circumvent with little more than their own blamelessness to guide them. This struck me as entirely beautiful, and convinced me that one must emulate their efforts, that one must never be discouraged by the unhelpfulness of others. Not that I had ever experienced such an obstacle at close quarters: what I took for wickedness was in fact worldliness, as my mother explained to me. The unapologetic presence of our visitors, their peculiar blend of restlessness and complacency, which was discordant, was essentially harmless, though it occasionally sought relief in imprecations, in disapproval of others, principally of my mother and myself. I saw -- in Nancy's hoarse smoker's laugh, in Millicent's delicate hand smoothing her hair -- a quality that was alien to our own lives, faintly undesirable. Sometimes my mother's eyes had a look of tiredness, and she was obliged to turn her head away for a brief moment, as suggestions for improvement, or rather self-improvement, came her way. These visits, which I now see were undertaken for more merciful reasons than mere curiosity, were in essence a form of female solidarity before that condition had been politicized. They were concerned for any woman living on her own, with only a child for company. At the same time they were fearful that such ivory-tower isolation might be catching. They wanted my mother to be reinstated in society for their sakes as much as for her own. They genuinely pitied a woman who had no status, but they also translated this lack of status as failure in the world's terms.

What distinguished my mother was a form of guilelessness which they had, perhaps regretfully, laid aside. This was what I saw: they had exchanged one condition for another, and may not have been entirely compensated. My mother was their crusade: they also usefully saw her as a pupil. When they rose to leave, the frowns disappeared from their faces, the concern evaporated, and their embraces were genuine. They were glad to get back to their own orbit, with its comprehensible distractions, glad to have done their social duty, even if the results were so sadly lacking. My mother, shaking cushions after their departure, would be more silent than usual, and I somehow knew I should not intrude on her thoughts. I reflected that Nancy and Millie were characters, no less and no more, and that any confrontation -- but none had taken place, nor would take place -- would be unequal. My mother was bound to succeed, for she was untainted by the world's corruption and thus qualified for remission from further ordeals. This was slightly less affirmative than my previous beliefs. I comforted myself that even David Copperfield had had moments of downheartedness.

On the whole I was happy. I liked my school, I liked my friends; I liked the shabby charm of our flat, from which a light shone out in winter to guide me home. I liked our silent streets, the big windows of the houses in which artists had once lived: I liked its emanations of the nineteenth century. The only difference was that I no longer thought in terms of wayfarers; such people had now become neighbours, or, once I was out of their orbit, pedestrians. That we were somewhat on the margin of things did not disturb me, although the girls, making their way by car from Kensington, complained of the distance, as if they had been obliged to cross a frontier, or to go back in time. It is true that our surroundings were a little mournful, perhaps unnaturally so to those habitual shoppers. I, on the other hand, cherished them as a place of safety. The streetlamp that shone outside my bedroom window I accepted as a benevolent gesture on behalf of the town council, the man who swept the leaves in autumn as a guardian of our decency. I was hardly aware of the sound of cars, for fewer people drove then. Even footfalls sounded discreet and distant, and the clang of an iron gate was sometimes the only sound in the long afternoons.

This struck me as an ideal state of affairs. But as I grew older I began to be aware that my mother was less happy than I was. Her eyes had a distant look, and she turned her head slowly when I spoke to her, as if she had momentarily forgotten that I was there. She was still a young woman but she was slightly careworn, as if her thoughts were a burden to her. She was also more silent, nursing what I later came to understand as grief. She was entirely lucid, had devoted her life without complaint to a child who may not have been rewarding (but I did not think that then), and by dint of suppressing almost every healthy impulse had maintained both her composure and her dignity. Hence her silences, her very slight withdrawal from myself. Her survival depended on a control which had not previously been in default. For the first time I began to wish that my father had lived, but selfishly, as young people do, in order to leave me free. I knew, with my increasingly adult perceptions, that it was not in my gift to deal with such a deficit, that my mother's loneliness was acute, that regrets, long buried, had begun their insidious journey to full consciousness . . . My mother was a good woman, too good to give way to self-pity. This austerity of behaviour denied her close friends. I think she exchanged only the most obvious pleasantries with our neighbours, keeping her most painful thoughts fiercely to herself. To voice even one of them would have constituted a danger.

Her sadness, I thought, was brought on by the knowledge that life's opportunities had definitively passed her by, and also by virtue of the fact that the redeeming feature, or presence, had not manifested itself. She was thus cast into the category of the unwanted, the unsought. I perceived this on certain lightless afternoons, when there was no joyous voice to greet me when I returned from a friend's house, from noisy friendly normality. I perceived it, no doubt correctly, but it burdened me. I wanted no part of her passivity. I was young and not notably unfeeling, but I did not want to be a partner in anyone's regrets. Had I been of an age to understand the full implications of this dereliction I should have resented it strenuously. As it was I began to see some virtue in the girls' remonstrances, though in truth they had little but themselves to offer by way of compensation for her solitude. Therefore, when I put my key in the door one afternoon and heard Millie's festive voice exclaiming, 'Now, I'm counting on you, Anne. There'll only be a few people. Nice people. I know you'll like them,' I was inclined to add my own encouragements to hers.

My mother murmured something placatory.

'Nonsense,' said Nancy. 'You have to make a bit of an effort in this life if you want to get anywhere. And as far as I can make out you're not getting anywhere.

'Six-thirty,' said Millie. 'I'll send the car for you.

After that it would have been difficult to back down.

My mother's expression, after they had left, was bemused, resigned, even cynical. I took it as a good sign that she went into her bedroom and opened her creaking wardrobe door. Everything in our flat creaked, a sound I found friendly. Now I saw, perhaps for the first time, that it was rather gloomy, that my mother's room was in perpetual shadow, too conducive to nostalgia, to introspection. On her dressing-table was the photograph of the young man in the academic gown whom I did not remember. His face was steadfast, obedient, not quite up to the task of growing up, certainly not of growing old. I regretted his absence, as I had not done when still a child, with my mother to myself. Now I had her to myself, but was no longer a child, was beginning to feel a hunger for wider experiences, for a life outside the home, even one as well ordered as ours. Perhaps precisely for that reason.

'Do I look all right?' asked my mother, on that next Friday evening.

I thought she looked beautiful, in her simple blue dress and jacket. She was plainly agitated, and had it not been for the car being sent would have thankfully abandoned the whole adventure. When Tom, Millie's driver, rang the bell, we were both in a state of high concern. It was almost a relief when she left, and I was thankful for the hour or two I could spend on my own before her return. I thought of her among those nice people and hoped painfully, not that she was enjoying herself -- that would have been too much to expect -- but that she was not feeling too lonely. For a woman as shy as my mother social occasions on which she was unaccompanied were a nightmare. That was why Millie's pressing invitations, offered, or rather insisted upon for entirely defensible reasons, were, more often than not, gratefully refused.

But she had not refused this one, and it was at Millie's party, on that Friday evening, that she met her second husband, my stepfather-to-be, and thus changed both our lives.

Excerpted from The Bay of Angels by Anita Brookner. Copyright 2001 by Anita Brookner. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 27, 2003

    Stranger Gap

    The first three chapters of The Bay of Angels point to one reason why a New York Times book reviewer suggests that Henry James would approve of Anita Brookner. The voice of the central character, Zoë, evokes an Austenian shadow. Surface comparisons are deceiving. Chapter 4 replaces the Austenian voice with existentialist tones in allusions to Camus¿ The Stranger. In the final chapter, the climate and voice assume the mask of the final chapter of Brontë¿s Jane Eyre with a sublime twist. The changes in voice are clues to the subtext breezing through the pages of Zoë¿s life. Under the guise of good manners and restraint, Zoë quietly demonstrates the search for value by a generation of women coming of age in the ambiguous space between the Sixties¿ and the Techno generations. In existential voice, the narrative swirls about a central hub: Zoë¿s journey toward understanding death and achieving self-validation. The reader has access to only an approximation of time: Zoë¿s parents romanced in the 50¿s, and Zoë comes of age in the 80¿s. She realizes her adult self into being through experiential opposition of the Same as the still living (herself and the present), against the Other as the dead (her mother and the past). Along the way from child to adult, she blends the magical thinking inherited from her mother¿s generation of women with the revolutionary thinking of the 60¿s women¿s movement. Zoë doesn¿t worship gods or men, although she mimes both in voice and in story (especially in allusions to Dickens). Her patriarchal legacy, bestowed by the ¿gods of antiquity,¿ is discarded along with shadowy memories of her dead father. Stepfather Simon, apropos of the treatment of women by men of his generation, provides without inspiring, keeping his hands firmly on the reigns while promising freedom. Adam, Zoë¿s first important lover, is sketched as an exemplar of the men from her own generation: unable to commit, focused on material gain, and blessed with success by the patriarchal ancestors. Antoine at first refuses to acknowledge her individuality: Zoë¿s generation has been alternately attached to the end-years of the Baby Boom or added to the first years of the Baby Bust by culturists, while not really fitting in either generation; but, he eventually accepts Zoë on her terms. The ¿common currency¿ of the generations is the human sacrifice made in the name of progress. Zoë realizes the personal price extracted to have a ¿flat of one¿s own¿ may be too high. She gradually overcomes the guilt of magically thinking her mother to death; accepts, but does not surrender to the fiction of a homecoming for her generation of women; and, comes to terms with the power of negation in a patriarchal society perpetuating the fiction of a ¿right true end¿ for women. Independence for Zoë¿s generation of women requires an ¿act of faith¿ in the power of the Sun God (Why God? Still ambiguous after 200 pages?) to warm the spirit of the individual woman whose worth continues to be negated by a frozen society. Brookner gobbles up The Stranger and spits him out morphed into her own voice to create an Orlando all her own.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 6, 2002


    After a pair of slightly underpar novels, Anita Brookner easily reclaims her place as the best living writer in the English language. In 'BAY OF ANGELS' she weaves a tale of a young English woman who finds her mother involved with a seemingly interesting and worldly older man. Her mother marries and moves to NICE on the French Riviera. But just as the man's facade is lifting, the stepfather suddenly dies and the young woman is on a zig-zag between her life and job in London and caring for her institutionalized mother in Nice. Meanwhile, her personal life is on a virtual hold while responsibilities are met. As is her mainstay, BROOKNER offers incredible insight into the lives of those people who seem to be ordinary, and she is without compromise in refusing to glamourize or fast-track their lives with (false) easy answers. Discovering ANITA BROOKNER is a blessing and a curse. She either involves the reader totally in a sort of actionless page-turning frenzy, or she's dismissed by other readers who'd really perfer another John Grisham re-hash instead of reading a level-headed book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 26, 2009

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