In 'Fraud,' Brookner may write elegantly, but it's too much of the same thing


In her fiction, Anita Brookner intimately acquaints a reader with the genteel futility that pervades the lives of her characters, British women whose mobility is severely restricted by their cast and class. Her heroine is typically the daughter of the household who, if she's lucky, passes directly from her father's care to her husband's controlling hand. Personal autonomy is the answer to a question she hasn't the courage to raise.

Anna Durrant, the heroine of Ms. Brookner's newest novel, "Fraud," is not one of the lucky ones. She is 50-ish and has spent her life caring for her fragile and utterly dependent mother. Durrant's father died young and her one romantic episode consisted of unexpressed feelings for the family doctor who married another. We learn as the book opens that Durrant is so much on the periphery of everyone's life that she has been missing for months before anyone notices.

"Fraud" is beautifully executed. Ms. Brookner, who won the Booker Prize for "Hotel du Lac," is such an elegant writer, her moments of illumination so piercingly true, and her recurring theme -- that a woman must wrest her life from the service of others to make it her own -- so valid it seems churlish to complain. Still, Ms. Brookner is becoming repetitive to the point where it's getting hard to distinguish one book from another.

To some readers, "Fraud" will deliver an expected pleasure. There are superb characterizations. Mrs. Marsh, the elderly acquaintance who won't allow Anna to attach herself following her mother's death, is a wonderfully calibrated portrayal of a woman who lived her life determined not to breach social confines. The doctor with whom Anna might have found happiness of sorts is also fully realized and recognizable in both his thoughtless arrogance and helpless inability to confront the disappointment of his marriage.

Yet Anna's essential dilemma, her refusal to step into life even when provoked by her mother's remarrying a man whose charms are purely physical, is but a variation on other tales told by this author. We are now too familiar with Ms. Brookner's women and their thwarted longings, their adherence to convention, their damnable inability to seize the day. Anna represents a progression in that she does eventually bolt, but the happy ending is jarringly clumsy and feels manufactured. Rather than Ms. Brookner's tacking on a fresh outcome, readers might welcome her exploring fresh territory instead.


Title: "Fraud."

Author: Anita Brookner.

Publisher: Random House.

Length, price: 240 pages, $21.

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