I just finished Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac and ended up enjoying it quite a lot. You’ll find my earlier post on the book and my musings on Brookner’s reputation here. The ending — I won’t give anything away — was satisfying; it was suitably, quietly dramatic. I’m eager to read more Brookner, but I’m thinking, based on comments people made on my earlier Brookner post, that she’s probably best read occasionally rather than all in a rush. She strikes me as someone, like Elizabeth Taylor, who is good to have on hand for when the right mood strikes. I’m going to try to get her latest, Leaving Home, when it comes out in paper, and I’m curious about Look at Me after the wonderful review on Book World.
The main character, Edith, is a romance novelist, and it seems to me that it might be fun for an author to have a main character who is a writer. You can play around with ideas about writing and what authors are like and what they do and you could explore some of your own feelings about writing, or maybe create a writer who’s very different than you are.
Brookner plays around with the genre of the romance a bit: Edith can be said to have a romantic outlook on the world and on her life, in the sense that she believes in love’s power to transform. She refuses to take a more “practical” approach to her life, although many people put pressure on her to do so when she has the chance to marry a good man she does not love. We find out early on that she is involved in an affair with a married man, and the drama of the rest of the book is not so much about what will happen to that relationship, but about whether Edith will give up on love itself. Hotel du Lac is not at all a romance novel of the type Edith would write, but it is a romance novel in another sense – it’s a novel that ponders what it means to be devoted to the ideals of romance.
The hotel itself is almost a character in its own right. It’s an out-of-fashion resort hotel where one finds people who have gone there for years out of habit, and it’s a place where families and friends send women they aren’t quite sure what to do with, women who need some rest and recovery, who may have strayed from acceptable behavior and need some time to ponder their sins. Edith is there for this reason, to get herself back to normal, and, as one might expect in a novel, this is precisely what she doesn’t do. As you can imagine, a hotel of this sort is a wonderful setting for a novel – it’s a confined space full of interesting people, and Brookner makes good use of it.
What makes this novel work, I think, is the strength of the main character. I loved seeing the world through her eyes. In several scenes, Edith sits in her hotel room writing letters to her married lover, describing the hotel’s odd characters and the slow pace of life there, and I was struck as I read those letters at the way Brookner creates a sense of a gap between how Edith felt about her life and how she wrote about it in her letters. She’s trying to give shape to her life and inject some energy into it through her writing – this is true of her novels too – and the writing seems very brave and hopeful but also that much sadder because we know that real life isn’t like what it is in novels and brave, cheery letters. Edith comes across as heroic – an odd sort of hero, but a hero nonetheless.