Middle aged and middle class Edith has made a fuss and created an upsetting situation so her friends think it appropriate that she go abroad for a while. The Hotel du Lac of Anita Brookner’s modern classic is situated in Switzerland and it has as its guests a number of women who have embarrassed their friends or family – each of them spending their time working through their issues or just living in exile until they are deemed acceptable again.
We are quite a long way through the book before we realise what Edith has done that has caused her social banishment but we slowly become aware that she has lived a life which is not what one might have expected from a woman who dresses dowdily and wears long cardigans. In fact, Edith has been conducting a long term affair with a married man and is very much in love with him. Whilst in Switzerland she will have to decide whether to continue as before, leave her lover or marry a man she meets abroad whom she doesn’t love but who will give her security.
I remember this book being very prominent at the time of its first publication but I had never read it. I am glad that I have now as it is a beautiful piece of observational writing. Edith is clever and witty but continually overlooked. She connects with all the other women in the hotel and learns their stories. She explores the possibility of a new life with her eyes wide open with no sentimentality. She relives the events that caused her exile and we realise that she seems always to be pushed into action by others – now she has a chance to think for herself and maybe embrace a new life.
This is a short book in which no word is wasted. Its overall feeling is that of melancholy – you note that at the end of the book none of the women has really moved on from their difficult positions. The whole period of time seems futile and the women to be living out their lives in a bubble away from the realities of the world.
This is a book that will stay with you for a long time.