Rules of Engagement

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In this masterly new novel, the Booker Prize-winning author of Hotel du Lac and Making Things Better gives us an exquisite story about the changes in relationships over time, and how our life choices can both reflect the past and direct the future. Hailed as "one of the finest novelists of her generation" (The New York Times), Anita Brookner here weaves an impeccably crafted tale of two women, friends from youth, and the decisions and men that define their destinies.

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Rules of Engagement: A Novel

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In this masterly new novel, the Booker Prize-winning author of Hotel du Lac and Making Things Better gives us an exquisite story about the changes in relationships over time, and how our life choices can both reflect the past and direct the future. Hailed as "one of the finest novelists of her generation" (The New York Times), Anita Brookner here weaves an impeccably crafted tale of two women, friends from youth, and the decisions and men that define their destinies.

Elizabeth and Betsy knew each other as schoolchildren. When they meet again later in life, one is safely married, the other most unsafely partnered. Together, they discover that despite their very disparate lives, they still have in common the capacity for making dangerous choices. Ultimately, their inclination to implement these decisions reveals the fate that was spelled out in their characters from the start.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Brookner's spiritual and syntactic masters are Jane Austen and Henry James, and The Rules of Engagement contains, in places, passages worthy of these august forebears. Indeed, she pays specific homage to the shades whose style and concerns suffuse her prose. — Catherine Lockerbie
The Washington Post
Elizabeth, like many other of Brookner's protagonists, resists connection, intimacy and emotional risk. Turning away from both friendship and love, she holds fast to a fatalistic and inexplicable belief that she is doomed to solitude and silence. This melancholy assumption of exclusion, this incapacity to ask anything of life, reverberates in The Rules of Engagement, as it does in much of Brookner's work. The story is told, however, with such elegance and polish that its surface -- satiny, flawless and smooth as an onion, as always -- holds a fascination equal to its content. — Roxana Robinson
Publishers Weekly
To read Brookner is to be reminded of fiction's potential to stun, with full, complex characters in a richly imagined world, as she draws on her insights into human nature to explore the strained yet enduring friendship of two women of "the last virginal generation." Born in 1948 and friends from childhood, the open, eager-to-please Betsy and the cooler, analytical Elizabeth appear to have little in common. But they share many things, including stubbornness, strength and, dangerously, the same married lover. Seen through the eyes of 50-something Elizabeth, the novel chronicles the often devastating choices the two women make as they age; as such, it is more a book of thought than action. The reclusive Elizabeth, conscious of the mysterious "virtue attached to being a witness," dissects the minutest of human interactions, imposing elaborate rules of self-governance with which she often does battle. Her gaze is ruthless but brilliantly illuminating. "I saw our childlessness as an indictment, a reproach to what had been our folly," Elizabeth observes of herself and Betsy. "We had seen ourselves always as lovers, whereas sensible persons, or perhaps those with greater understanding of the world, make their peace with existing circumstances.... we had chosen, she and I, to stay within the limits of this exalted and fragile condition." Within those limits, in Brookner's skilled hands, vast worlds of human possibility exist. (Jan.) Forecast: Brookner has established a dedicated readership through such books as the Booker-winning Hotel du Lac and Making Things Better. This elegant, thought-provoking novel will surely increase it. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
There is a predictable formula to Brookner's novels. Start with a middle-aged female heroine of modest wealth, genteel breeding, and solid education: in this outing, it is Elizabeth Wetherall, who may live in an era of email and text messaging but would still seem at home in the pages of a Victorian novel. Give her a lonely history: Elizabeth has escaped her parents' fractious marriage to a quieter one of her own-to a man many years her senior who spends his days at work and his evenings asleep in front of the television. Throw in some minor complications: she becomes estranged from her only friend when the childhood schoolmate takes up with her lover. Finally, end with disappointment: it is a rare Brookner heroine who exits buoyant and hopeful. Verdict: well crafted but soulless. Purchase where demand warrants.-Barbara Love, Kingston Frontenac P.L., Ont. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Brookner (Making Things Better, Jan. 2003, etc.) again chronicles with surgical precision lives distorted by temperament and circumstance. Elizabeth, now in her 50s, narrates a grim tale about two women, friends since childhood, whose illusions about love have tragic outcomes. Elizabeth and Betsy are quintessential Brookner characters who realize early on that life cannot be fought but only endured. Both are affected by a past that shapes the rest of their lives. Betsy's mother died young, leaving her to be raised by her father and a maiden aunt. She yearned to belong to a "real" family like Elizabeth's, which was in reality riven by discord and, eventually, divorce. After school, Elizabeth studies cooking in Paris, where she is miserable and lonely. Back in London, no happier and now bored as well, she marries the much older Digby. Betsy comes home from Paris, where she is living with French radical Daniel, to attend the wedding. Elizabeth observes that her friend is happy and in love, a condition that suits Betsy's romantic nature. Though both women come of age in the 1960s, neither is able to enjoy that decade's freedom or opportunities Still bored, Elizabeth next falls into bed with Edmund Fairlie, a colleague of her husband's; she finds their affair curiously stimulating, but when Digby suddenly dies she breaks it off and retreats into quiet loneliness. Betsy, alone after Daniel is killed in an accident, meets Edmund at Digby's funeral and is soon in love with him and his entire family. Elizabeth observes at a distance her friend's doomed liaison with the cool and ruthless Edmund, whose wife is equally cynical. Then Betsy becomes terminally ill, and Elizabeth realizes that both ofthem are now middle-aged, childless, and alone. Their mistake was to see themselves as lovers rather than as wives, and both have paid for that error with lonely and empty years. Cool but, as always, deadly accurate.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780754084730
  • Publisher: Sound Library
  • Publication date: 5/28/2004
  • Format: Cassette
  • Product dimensions: 6.22 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.31 (d)

Read an Excerpt


We met, and became friends of a sort, by virtue of the fact that we started school on the same day. Because we had the same Christian name it was decreed that she should choose an alternative. For some reason--largely, I think, because she was influenced by the sort of sunny children's books available in our milieu--she decided to be known as Betsy. When we met up again, several years later, she was Betsy de Saint-Jorre. Not bad for a girl initially registered as Elizabeth Newton.

How much nicer children were in those days than the adults they have become! Born in 1948, we were well-behaved, incurious, with none of the rebellious features adopted by those who make youthfulness a permanent quest. We went to tea in one another's houses, sent each other postcards when we went on holiday with our parents, assumed we would know each other all our lives . . . The Sixties took us by surprise: we were unprepared, unready, uncomprehending. That, I now see, was why I married Digby: it was the right, unthinking thing to do. That was why Betsy took it upon herself to have a career, out of despair, perhaps, at not being provided for. Choice hardly dictated our actions. Yet I suppose we were contented enough. Certainly we knew no better. And now we know too much. Discretion veiled our motives then, and perhaps does so even now, even in an age of multiple communications, of e-mails, text messages, and news bulletins all round the clock. We still rely on narrative, on the considered account. That is how and why I knew Betsy's story, though I cannot claim to know all of it. There were areas of confusion which it seemed better not to disclose. But she was always painfully honest, rathermore so than prudence might advise. That quality made itself felt when we were still children; her desire to explain herself, to be known, was perhaps really a desire to be loved. That too was discernible, and it set her apart. In later life, when I knew her again, that quality was still there, obscured only slightly by the manners she had acquired, and always at odds with her mind, which was exacting. In other circumstances she might have been remarkable. But her hopes had been curtailed, and in the years of her adulthood one sometimes saw this, in the odd distant glance directed towards a window, or the eagerness with which she smiled at any passing child.

Her initial demotion from Elizabeth to Betsy was thought to be justified, given her uncertainty of status. She took it in her stride, thinking it gave her permission to assume an altogether different character, someone more lighthearted, skimming the surface, responding always with a smile. She longed to be superficial, with the sort of ease that I and my particular coterie took for granted. Adult responsibility, of an altogether unwelcome kind, had already come her way, in the shape of her widowed father and the faded aunt who kept some sort of primitive life going in that flat above the surgery in Pimlico Road. She was unfortunate: that was generally agreed, and it made her something of an anomaly in our midst. My mother professed sympathy for her, but viewed with dislike Betsy's attempts to be winning when she came to our house in Bourne Street, on the rare occasions when I was obliged to invite her. The enthusiasm with which she greeted my mother's teatime offerings (meagre enough in those days of austerity) and the attention she paid to the contents of our drawing-room were not attractive, and my mother was not tactful in acknowledging the evidence of Betsy's social awkwardness. I had many years in which to reflect on my mother's harshness. Even when young I was aware of a desire to depart from this, to be less brittle, less proud, less conformist than my mother. Now I see that I have not quite managed it. My only victory is that the harshness has been internalized. My judgements even now are sometimes less than charitable.

There was another reason for my mother's dislike, and that had to do with the cause of Betsy's profound disenfranchisement. Her father's negligence, or incompetence, had led indirectly to the death of one of his patients, who happened to be an acquaintance of ours. Pity and dislike, first manifested by my mother, affected Betsy even more than her father's disgrace, which she inherited. It seemed ordained to follow her through life, for there was nothing she could do to rectify it. His error was, I dare say, a common one: a lump in the breast which he assured his patient was a cyst revealed its malignancy in due course and led not only to that patient's demise but to his own, after a year of brooding and of unpopular comment in the neighbourhood. I met him once, when I went home with Betsy, the only time I did so; he entered what I suppose had once been her nursery, where we were discussing our homework, turned off the electric fire and opened the window. I found this insensitive, though it may have been protective, but there was little in his demeanour which struck me as kindly. I thought him completely inadequate to fulfil the role of father, but I think he was simply indifferent to children. His better manners were reserved for his patients, in particular for his female patients. Maybe a desire to reassure, or even to comfort, came uppermost in his professional armoury. There was no whisper of impropriety, or none that I was aware of. His greater failure was his dwindling reputation in the year that followed our friend's death, and his own death, from a heart attack, while sitting at his desk in his consulting-room, an irony he was spared. Irony was not a quality much appreciated in the 1950s. Now of course it is all-pervasive.

Sympathy was expressed, condolences were offered, and then the incident was forgotten, though not the fate of the patient. It was thought fitting that he should disappear, and that Betsy should be consigned to her aunt. This aunt--Mary to her niece, Miss Milsom to everyone else--was even less promising than her brother-in-law. Tall, thin, colourless, and obviously virginal, she inspired a vague repugnance even in those unliberated days. 'Poor thing,' said my mother, with a rich show of sympathy, but here again her dislike, or more probably her distaste, was evident, perhaps justifiably so. Miss Milsom had come to keep house after her sister's death, shortly after the birth of Betsy, and she did so in a conscientious but defeated manner, so that it took her all day to prepare a meal which was no doubt unpalatable. After commiserating with Miss Milsom, or more probably for Miss Milsom, my mother would laugh, showing all her sparkling teeth, as if to demonstrate the difference between Miss Milsom and herself.

Nowadays, of course, we would assume that Miss Milsom and the doctor indulged in sex of a sort, but then we assumed no such thing. Those were innocent days; sex had yet to become the commodity on offer to all that it is now. By the same token there was little show of love between the aunt and the niece, neither of whom had been able to envisage an alternative to their present arrangement, but they were both loyal and obedient people, and they sustained an undemanding harmony, which, though honourable, provided little joy. Betsy proved to be a clever girl, who was obliged to keep her cleverness to herself, except at school, where she developed a passion for the drama, and was given to declaiming lines from Shakespeare and even Racine (we were doing Hamlet and Bere- nice); it was her one opportunity to deliver herself of aspiration (and it was aspiration rather than frustration) and to make contact with adult emotion.

The solution Betsy and her aunt made to their mutual lack of comprehension was their weekly visit to the cinema, usually on a Saturday evening, when they enjoyed a timid contact with the crowd. An early supper, the cinema, and a cup of tea on their return to the flat satisfied Miss Milsom's sense of a justified indulgence, both for herself and for her niece. She viewed the films as an outsider: not for her the extravagance, the licence, the romance. Even so, something in her disciplined soul responded, whereas Betsy remained faithful to the grander concepts in her favourite Racine. 'Que le jour recommence, et que le jour finisse/Sans que jamais Titus puisse voir Berenice . . .' These lines became prophetic, so that at the very end, when I visited her in the hospital, I would see her eyes widen in her thin face, and hear her murmur, '. . . sans que de tout le jour . . .,' and then fall silent.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 7, 2005

    Engaged in Rules

    This book is about thought processes. The main character, Elizabeth is an admittedly unsympathetic character. She often disappoints herself with her reactions and reponses throughout the book. An Englishwoman in her mid-fifties, she spends most of the 273 pages revealing her innermost and often unattractive and negative thoughts about her childhood friend, her husband and her lovers. None of her relationships are satisfactory. Although she is well-educated and would seem to have opportunities for engagement in many facets of life, her introspectiveness as well as the strangeness of her developmental years, have caused a sense of stagnation and fatalism in her life which she regrets but is unable to get past. The character of Elizabeth is a study in the extremes of introspection and it's deleterious effects on a personality and for that matter, a book. I continued to read the book to the end in hopes of finding a surprise, pleasant or otherwise, but found none. On the up side, I added many great entries to my new word list. Brookner's vocabulary is enviable.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 26, 2004

    The Game of Love and Loss

    In 'The Rules of Engagement',Anita Brookner's latest book,the characters substitute discussion and introspection for action, resulting in a novel of manners rather than real life. Elizabeth and Betsy are schoolmates; one is wealthy and sheltered while the other is an orphan, raised by an unloving aunt, and in poor financial straits. Elizabeth makes a loveless marriage to Digby Wetherall, 27 years her senior, while Betsy, who comes into a small inheritance, lives a bohemian life in Paris with Daniel, a handsome, radical student. Once married, Elizabeth commences a love affair with Edmund, one of Digby's friends. ten years younger than her husband and attractive. Elizabeth pursues this relationship knowing it can lead nowhere, but she enjoys the release that passion brings to her life. She accepts that she can make no demands on her lover who has a wife and three children. Nor can she confide her feeling of love to him or her interest in literature. These are'the rules of engagement' the author cites in her title. Suddenly,Digby dies. At the funeral reception when Edmund meets Betsy whose Parisian lover has been killed in an accident, the two are smitten. But Betsy refuses to follow the rules of engagement. She lives only to see Edmund and pities her friend whom, she says, has never known love. In resolving this situation, Brookner draws on her knowledge of the classics. During her school days, Betsy had been an actress, starring in tragic heroine roles like Racine's 'Berenice'. The lines of unrequited love that Betsy recited as a student prefigure her own life as she lays dying. The pain she ignored during her affair with Edmund turns out to be incurable cancer. Elizabeth, who has relinquished Edmund when Betsy claimed him, now is the sole comforter of her girlhood friend and companion to her slow death. Edmund and his three children to whom Betsy gave unflinching devotion are absent. Brookner has written a novel of restrained passion. Whether or not it succeeds depends on the reader who must settle for extended chapters of Elizabeth's self-analysis and inner dialogue in place of plot. Change, when it comes, results from fate rather than from the intent of the characters who experience their feelings helplessly locked in a prison of non-communication and circumstance.

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