Mrs. May is a widow, having lost Henry in the distant past. Even though she always felt like an outsider in their company, she continued her involvement with Henry’s cousins, Kitty and Molly, and recently became swept up in the drama of a hastily planned wedding for Kitty’s grandaughter, Ann. Mrs. May (Thea) describes herself as “quiet, pleasant, rather dull, but infinitely reliable.” She also thinks of herself as Mrs. May. Early on in the book, she’s constantly longing for the solitary peace of her own flat when she’s visiting Kitty or Molly. When Kitty asked her to host Steve, a member of the wedding party, she immediately said no, but then quickly came around, because she is, after all according to her own description of herself, “infinitely reliable.” We eventually learn what caused Thea to become so passionless, so unadventurous, but that didn’t stop this reader from yelling at her (in my head, of course) to take a risk, do something different, bust out of your routine, meet people – anything to lift her out of the torpor that also became my torpor reading about her life.
It’s obvious that Brookner is also a visual artist as well as a literary one. She pays attention to light the way an artist would. The following passage comes near the end of the book, and it was here, finally, that the narrative grabbed me and quickened the pace of my reading.
“That night, in her dreams, she had a vision of what she understood to be Heaven, or the next world. It took the shape of a field full of folk, some sauntering absent-mindedly, some merely taking the air, on a sunless afternoon. The light disappointed her: she would have expected splendour, but here everything was reassuringly banal.”
Things looked up at the end with the last word, “we.” You might recall from a previous post that Will Schwalbe said, if you want to know what a book is really about, read the last word. This last word is hopeful.
The passage above continued:
“The setting appeared to be Hyde Park, although there were factory chimneys in the distance. This latter detail, and the self-absorption of the walkers, were faintly reminiscent of a painting by Lowry, although as far as she could see no work was being done.”
This is a painting by Lowry called “Going to the Match.” I couldn’t find the one that is described in the book, so I picked this one because I liked the movement and feeling of excitement in the air.
Brookner further described her vision of heaven:
“There had undoubtedly been an impression of truthfulness, of almost unavoidable dullness, about her glimpse of Heaven. It was the dullness that made it convincing. It was an English Heaven, framed precisely to satisfy the expectations of those who had grown up in a Welfare State, sparse decent people who wore hats and took healthy walks.”
Loved the idea that English heaven would be dull!
One lovely thing in this otherwise bleak book, is a memory Thea held of a woman she and Henry met at a cafe in Paris. The old woman charmed both Henry and Thea, with whom she spoke everyday from the same table in the same cafe. Thea described her as a shapeless figure with her scarves and her hat, her mouth gleaming from her poireaux vinaigrette. When they parted company at the end of the week, the old lady said to Thea, “Que tous dos rêvese réalisent, as if she knew that the story was not yet over.” Her secret message was that dreams yet come true. When Thea recalled the woman years later, she wished to be “somehow taken under her wing, or to be admitted to the company of such astute and self-sufficient elders as she represented.” It was this recollection that had Thea considering changing the course of her life- becoming more like the Parisian woman, because what she represented was freedom from the desire to please. So of course, to commemorate this unstifling part of the book, I forgot about the puffs and the canapes from the wedding and wanted my own lips gleaming from my poireaux vinaigrette.
Steamed Leeks with Mustard-Shallot Vinaigrette
2 large leeks, cut into 2-by-1/2-inch strips
1 small shallot, minced
1 T Dijon mustard
1 T red wine vinegar
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
¼ C extra-virgin olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 T chopped parsley
In a saucepan fitted with a steamer basket, bring 1 inch of water to a boil. Add the leeks, cover and steam until just tender, about 5 minutes, longer if leeks are large. Drain the leeks, pat dry.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine the shallot with the mustard and the red wine and balsamic vinegars. Whisk in the olive oil and season with salt and black pepper.
Mound the steamed leeks on plates. Drizzle them with the vinaigrette, sprinkle with the parsley and serve. These are delicious with pork.