Brookner, Anita. The Rules of Engagement. New York: Vintage, 2003.
Thanks to Thomas over at My Porch, I am now a huge Anita Brookner fan. Today is Anita Brookner's 83rd birthday, and in honor of her, he has declared it to be International Anita Brookner Day (IABD). He challenged all of us to read one book by Brookner and to post on it today. He also offered some of her books up in a drawing, and I was a lucky winner of The Rules of Engagement. Easy decision, then, as to what I'd read for the challenge.
I had no idea what to expect, but Thomas and I seem to have quite similar tastes in books a good deal of the time (he's a huge Persephone and Virago fan, like I am), so I came to this book thinking I'd probably like it. What I didn't expect was that I'd sit down one afternoon just to read the first 20 or so pages to see what it was like and still be sitting there 130 pages later, all other plans for the afternoon forgotten. In fact, the only reason I put it down at that point was that I was starving and thought it might be a good idea to get a little food in my stomach.
Brookner is the sort of mesmerizing writer I love, one who pulls you into a story gently, so you don't realize what a firm grip she has on you until you are suddenly aware that there's no getting away. This book was a real page-turner, although not in the sense that expression is typically used. It wasn't action-packed or nail-bitingly suspenseful. It just was so incredibly real, and she made you care so much about her characters that you really wanted to know what was going to happen.
Back when I was in my mid-twenties, I remember sadly coming to the conclusion that making friends as an adult was so difficult, that it was very hard to make the sort of friends I'd had in school and college. When you're an adult, you just don't have hours and hours to talk on the phone and to stay up all night solving all the world's problems together. People are more guarded as adults, more afraid of betrayal. It's probably because we've learned from past mistakes and know that not everyone we consider a friend really is one. I remember thinking how rare it was to find someone with whom I clicked the way I seemed to do with people in college.
When Facebook first became all the rage, I was fascinated by the idea of re-connecting with some of the people I'd known in grade school and high school. I wondered if we could pick up where we'd left off after so many years. What I discovered, is that I couldn't. We've all led completely different lives, and it was soon clear to me that we just didn't have that much in common after so many years apart. The fact that we'd gone to school together, had slumber parties with each other, and enjoyed roller skating at the rink on Saturday nights meant nothing at this point in our lives. Maybe, it would, if I didn't live too far away from any of them to get together on any sort of regular basis, to see if we had more in common, but I didn't. Sad to say, I don't pay that much attention to their FB pages anymore.
I'm reminded of that line from The Big Chill, that William Hurt says (to Kevin Klein, I think. It's been quite a while since I've seen that movie), something to the effect of, "We knew each other for a short period a long time ago. You don't know anything about me now." It was a line that appalled me when I saw the movie for the first time, in the midst of my college career, convinced my friends and I would be as close as we all were forever. I now understand it much better than I did back then.
Brookner's book is all about such friendships. Elizabeth and Betsy (interesting that they both have the same name. Elizabeth is definitely the sort who would never have shortened it to the more playful "Betsy," and Betsy is the sort who would) are school friends, the kind who seem to have been drawn to each other, basically, because they didn't really have any other friends. They meet and become friends in the 1950s and both come of age in the sixties, a little shocked and taken by surprise by such things as the feminist movement. Elizabeth retreats in "good girl" fashion, marrying as her parents expect her to do. The man she marries is much older, and she quickly finds herself in the role of bored housewife. Betsy traipses off to Europe and falls in love with a Communist.
Later, they find each other again, two completely different women who've chosen very different paths in life, struggling to remain friends because, well, they've been friends for so long. They do have something in common, though, which is a desire to escape the lives they find themselves living. Although Elizabeth seems like she would be the more naïve of the two, she (who narrates the story) actually seems to be far more perceptive than Betsy, far more aware of the fact that they're trying to escape their lives. Betsy still seems to have the heart of a school girl: eager to be loved, eager to love, wanting others to like her. Nonetheless, Elizabeth isn't as immune to her emotions as she would like us to believe, and, just as it seemed in their schoolgirls days, these two don't really seem to have any other friends but each other.
I won't say anymore about the plot, because, really, half the fun of the book is not knowing what's going to happen. I will say, though, that one of the aspects of this book I really enjoyed was how it made me think about the women's movement when it was young and the effects it had on women who were not quite sure what to do with it. Elizabeth mentions "feminists" time and again, and she seems not quite sure what to make of the new roles being defined for women, while also seeming to feel she's missed out on something by taking a more traditional path. I've never thought that much about how hard it must have been for women who were raised with certain expectations and in certain social classes to be given the freedom they so deserved. Elizabeth's reaction, I'm quite convinced, although secretive and not admirable, was probably quite common. Broken hearts were also, I'm sure, quite common.
I'm certainly eager to read more Brookner now. I'm in luck: she's written so much. Meanwhile, I'd love to introduce her to someone else, so I'm going to pass on this book that was given to me. If you've never read her and would like to give her a try, please leave a comment. I will draw a name on July 21st and send it on to the lucky winner.