Anita Brookner, “Hotel du Lac”

The 1984 winner of the Booker Prize — back when we in the U.S. were just starting to pay attention to the Booker Prize — was a short quiet novel about an English spinster, called Hotel du Lac. The author, Anita Brookner, was an art historian who had suddenly broken into the fiction big time, and several of her previous novels were published in the U.S. around that time. Brookner’s popularity followed on the rediscovery of English novelist Barbara Pym (more spinsters) and the English movie Stevie, about the poet Stevie Smith. Also a spinster.

Wrong mood -- a baggage tag for the fictional Hotel du Lac would be shades of gray.

All this concern about unmarried women: was that a cultural phenomenon, or did I just perceive it as such? I think it must have been real, springing from an anxiety about women’s roles that was in turn the offspring of second-wave feminism. The protagonist of Hotel du Lac is Edith Hope, a 39-year-old writer of women’s romances who has been  packed off to a Swiss resort hotel to recover from some disaster she’s brought on herself. Brookner piques our curiosity by declining to explain just what happened. Instead she focuses on the characters at the hotel, most of whom are women. As Edith gets to know them, they resolve into examples of different approaches to femininity. There are the Pusey women, mother and daughter: voracious consumers and manipulators of masculinity. There is Monica, anorectic, sent to Switzerland to fatten up so she can conceive an heir for her husband. Then lame, deaf Madame de Bonneuil has been exiled to the hotel by her unloving son. The hotel, we understand, is a microcosm of the world, in which the flashy, dramatic, overtly sexy Pusey women are the successes. The sole male guest at the Hotel du Lac is handsome sardonic Philip Neville who tells Edith a few unpleasant truths:

‘You are a lady, Edith. They are rather out of fashion these days, as you may have noticed. As my wife you will do very well. Unmarried, I’m afraid you will soon look a bit of a fool.’

It turns out that Hotel du Lac is a mild little retelling of the Faust tale, with Philip Neville standing in for the devil (catch the name rhyming?) who offers Edith the great bargain of marriage. But she would certainly have to give him her soul.

This is most of the plot, and I’m sorry to have given it away, but Hotel du Lac isn’t the kind of book you read for the plot. Rather you read it for the sharp observations and Brookner’s insights, as well as her deft, economical characterizations. It does feel like a period piece, though; a snapshot of a surprisingly recent moment when women still defined themselves through their relationships to men.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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6 Responses to Anita Brookner, “Hotel du Lac”

  1. I was so surprised how much I loved this book. At first, I felt I was waffling on whether to continue, and then before I knew it, I was really invested in Edith and the other hotel guests. I loved how quiet and contemplative it was. I really should read more from her.

  2. Pingback: Anita Brookner, “A Misalliance” « Book Group of One

  3. Pensieve says:

    It’s not very insightful of me to point out the Stygian implications pertaining to Neville’s escorting of Edith across a chill, wintry river to make his bloodless proposal for a loveless marriage, since Brookner comes right out and tells us rivers have such connotations. What Edith must consider is not only a deal with the devil, but whether she is willing to play Persephone to Neville’s kingdom of the emotionally dead, despite the queenly social prerogatives it may afford her.

    I appreciated the writing, but had only a small liking for the book. Basically, I found nothing worthwhile about most of the characters, including Edith, who never seems to have the slightest qualm about having an affair with another woman’s husband or the pain it could potentially wreak upon the children. So why should I care about them, particularly when most of them, including Edith, seem to care for no one but themselves? That’s a problem I have with much of the reading I do, and although the fault may be mine, nonetheless, it prevented me from really admiring and enjoying the book as a whole.

    • carolwallace says:

      Oh, how clever of you to catch the “Styx” reference! Yes, I agree that Edith is a fairly chilly character but she’s the best of the bunch in this book! Thanks for commenting…

  4. Pingback: Follow my book blog, “Book Group of One” | | Carol Wallace BooksCarol Wallace Books

  5. Sorry, but it’s been years since I read this book – and it still stays firm in my memory!
    It was a very small volume, I seem to remember – any idea of the number of words/pages!

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