Booker Prize winner Brookner excels at rendering the stoic, muted lives of lonely people. In another of her coolly rendered but immensely absorbing novels, she trains her keenly observant eye on the fear of facing old age alone. Her 16th novel (after Incidents in the Rue Laughier) is also a stunning study of obsessive passion and of the ways one man's promising life is irrevocably altered by an unwise but irresistible attraction. Narrator Alan Sherwood, a conventional, dutiful London solicitor, now in his mid-50s, looks back on events that shaped his life over 15 years earlier: his reckless, mad lust for and one-night liaison with scornful, self-centered Sarah Miller (granddaughter of his father's first wife); his loveless marriage-on-the-rebound to prim, clinging Angela Milsom; the still-birth of their infant daughter, which Angela unfairly blames on Alan's absence (he was off secretly pursuing Sarah); and Angela's subsequent suicide. Using Alan's soul searching as the framework of her narrative, Brookner explores the discordant ways men and women view each other and the world. Alan, who mythologizes calculating, ruthless Sarah as a "passively demonic" pre-Raphaelite vision, later comes to understand that childishly dependent Angela, who inhabits the other end of the spectrum, is as aberrant a personality as Sarah. Indeed, it is a little disconcerting that Brookner's view of female nature here seems essentially uncharitable and extreme. All the women in this book, including Alan's mother and his uncle's new wife, create some sort of havoc in trying to balance their needs for intimacy and independence. Yet Brookner makes them credible, and her story of a decent man forever adrift in "intense and hopeless longing" is alive with tension and heartbreak. (Jan.)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
With predictable regularity, Brookner (Incidents in the Rue Laugier, LJ 11/15/95) produces a brooding, atmospheric novel every year or so. And with equal predictability, her quaint, old-fashioned characters tend to aging parents, take unexciting trips abroad, and conduct unsatisfactory love affairs. A loyal reader may be forgiven for feeling that, over time, Brookner's plotlines and characters begin to merge. Her latest protagonist is Alan Miller, a middle-aged widower who works as a solicitor, pays dutiful visits to his mother and her new husband, and pines away for an unrequited love. His obsession with Sarah, a distant cousin and a callous free spirit, progresses from admiration to stalking. After he accepts that she is out of reach, he settles into an unhappy marriage with her friend, Angela. But Sarah continues to drift in and out of his life, and Alan remains besotted with her, eventually putting his marriage at risk. Despite similarities to previous Brookner novels, expect a demand and purchase where necessary. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/96.]-Barbara Love, Kingston P.L., Ontario
Brookner presents a brilliant X-ray of obsession. -- Deborah Mason, New York Times Book Review
Another only slightly marred but once again precise study of loneliness and the long aftereffects of intemperate love, by the prolific Brookner.
Like many of Brookner's 15 previous novels (including, most recently, Incidents in the Rue Laugier, 1996), this one focuses on particularly bright, despairingly self-aware members of the British upper-middle class and upper class caught unawares in hapless romances. The retrospective narrative is told by Alan Sherwood, a successful, discriminating middle-aged barrister who looks back at the defining moment of his life: the suicide years before of his young wife, Angela. Her death is assumed, by Alan and most of his circle, to have been at least partly triggered by Alan's pursuit of the fey Sarah, a woman as heartless as she is beautiful. Alan, who had met, pursued, and lost Sarah before courting the clinging Angela cannot, despite the dictates of reason, put Sarah aside. And when she shows up after a long absence and seems to suggest a rendezvous in Paris, Alan tells the pregnant Angela that business calls him away. Sarah doesn't show up, and Angela miscarries in Alan's absence, beginning a decline that ends one night when she overdoses on sleeping pills while the exhausted Alan sleeps nearby. Brookner's protagonists are distinguished by the unblinking, analytical manner in which they regard their follies and by their clear inability to avoid them. Alan crosses paths with Sarah once again, when she is on the point of putting an elderly (and rather unlikable) relative out on the street. He intervenes, saves the relative, and breaks with Sarah. All of this is conveyed in a prose of great precision, its emotional power heightened by the cool distance from which calamitous events are described, and an otherwise deeply disturbing and convincing tale is only faintly diminished by the cryptic figure of Sarah: It's hard, from what we're told, to understand why Alan is so totally infatuated with her.
Still, Brookner remains our great poet of loneliness and loss.
"Engrossing a brilliant X-ray of obsession." -
New York Times Book Review
"Brilliant.... In a category of its own." -
The Globe and Mail
Altered States is among [Brookner's] best. Its spare, gripping narrative and sombre, yet illuminating look at the power of passion is extraordinary." - The London Free Press
"Brookner's vision of human behaviour is scrupulously honest, without ever being cruel a gem of revelation." -