Review

Strangers

by Anita Brookner

Paul Sturgis recently entered his retirement as a Londoner, and
quite gracefully. He didn’t really want to dispose of his
long career, but, as always, convention prevailed and he stepped
down when it was expected. Paul had resigned himself to a
relatively solitary life, but one that he also saw as stable and
sensible --- dependable. He relied upon a daily routine, making the
rounds and saying hello to the same acquaintances he knew around
London (who were all strangers, if truth be told).

It had not been for lack of effort that Paul found himself in
the position he was in, or so he told himself. He had past lovers,
and all of them chose to break it off in lieu of a more adventurous
mate. Paul was a thoughtful gentleman with depth of character and
integrity, not focused on the superficial nature of conversation
but really wanting to know the minds of others, to see what
motivated them. This seemed to have little worth to the women he
met, even less to strangers.

In regularly visiting Helena (his cousin's widow), Paul saw in
her a woman who would boast of important social arrangements, yet
who --- like him --- obviously led a completely solitary existence.
For a while, she was his only real contact, but he was ultimately
dissatisfied with the superficial atmosphere between them and
sought something more substantial.

While on holiday in Venice, Paul met Mrs. Vicky Gardner, a newly
divorced lady a decade or two younger than him. Curious about her
and thinking she was attractive enough, he asked her to check in on
him in London sometime. Not long after meeting Vicky, he also ran
into a past love, Sarah, who had rejected him years before on the
grounds that "he was too nice." Sarah was now a widow of his own
age and in poor health. Paul admittedly lacked sure feelings for
either woman, but saw new connections as such a rarity that he was
compelled to explore the possibilities.

Dates were spent in long walks through London and coffee breaks,
good grounds for pleasant and meaningful conversation. Yet, whether
with Vicky or with Sarah, each date Paul found decidedly
unfulfilling, still lacking in the substance he longed for. Vicky
was exciting in her spontaneity and obvious lack of constraints,
but seemed equally inconstant and inclined toward taking advantage
of her numerous hosts. And while Sarah was someone who Paul had
once really loved, even in her tendency to find fault with
everyone, she seemed to have changed greatly in the years he had
known her, her former confidence and determination now replaced by
physical frailty and a defeated outlook. Paul found himself
deliberating on whether either one would make an acceptable spouse
for him in his final years, maybe not a lover but a companion. And
while tempting, he had to ask himself in truth if the idea was
really fulfilling. 

STRANGERS, Anita Brookner’s 24th novel, is a story about
empowerment in making life choices, a lesson in breaking away from
old habits to find the spirit that drives you and makes life
worthwhile. There is no one who needs this more than Paul Sturgis,
one of the most unexciting, morose bachelors on the planet, but who
is also a dependable, admirable gentleman with a great deal more
character than any of the women who have walked out on him over the
years. To see the alteration in his outlook is thoroughly
satisfying.

My only grievance about STRANGERS is that a substantial portion
of the story focuses on Paul's ruminations on his solitary life and
troubles, a gloomy subject that makes for a depressing novel until
his transcendence, which isn't until the end. While focusing on
Paul's woes is wholly necessary to the storyline, I wished his
deliverance had come sooner so I could savor it. That said, the
book is extraordinary in how thoughtful it is and how true it
feels. And I could never fault the quality and beauty of the
writing. STRANGERS flows with an easy formality that is a joy to
experience in and of itself.

Reviewed by Melanie Smith (melanies@daywesthealthcare.com) on January 23, 2011

Strangers
by Anita Brookner

  • Publication Date: July 13, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0307472604
  • ISBN-13: 9780307472601