Cover image for The rules of engagement : a novel
Title:
The rules of engagement : a novel
Author:
Brookner, Anita.
Personal Author:
Edition:
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Random House, [2003]

©2003
Physical Description:
273 pages ; 25 cm
Language:
English
ISBN:
9781400061655
Format :
Book

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Summary

Summary

In this masterly new novel, the Booker Prize--winning author of Hotel du Lac and Making Things Better gives us an exquisite story about the changes in relationships over time, and how our life choices can both reflect the past and direct the future. Hailed as "one of the finest novelists of her generation" (The New York Times), Anita Brookner here weaves an impeccably crafted tale of two women, friends from youth, and the decisions and men that define their destinies. Elizabeth and Betsy knew each other as schoolchildren. When they meet again later in life, one is safely married, the other most unsafely partnered. Together, they discover that despite their very disparate lives, they still have in common the capacity for making dangerous choices. Ultimately, their inclination to implement these decisions reveals the fate that was spelled out in their characters from the start.


Author Notes

Anita Brookner was born in London, England on July 16, 1928. She received a BA in history from King's College London in 1949 and a doctorate in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art in 1953. She went on to lecture in art at Reading University and the Courtauld Institute, where she specialized in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French art. She became the first woman to be named as Slade Professor of Art at Cambridge University in 1967.

Her first novel, A Start in Life, was published in 1981. Some of her other works include The Bay of Angels, The Next Big Thing, The Rules of Engagement, Latecomers, Leaving Home, Incidents in the Rue Laugier, Look at Me, and Strangers. Hotel du Lac won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1984 and was adapted for television in 1986. She has also written scholarly works about Jacques Louis David, Jean Baptiste Greuze, and Jean-Antoine Watteau. She died on March 10, 2016 at the age of 87.

(Bowker Author Biography)


Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Two London girls born in 1948 and both named Elizabeth start school on the same day. One is asked to choose an alternative, and she opts for Betsy, a bid for cheerfulness in light of her dim orphan life. Elizabeth appears to be far better off, but her seemingly glamorous parents' marriage is wretchedly unhappy. Lacking in imagination and fire, Elizabeth marries Digby, a dull man 27 years her senior. Betsy goes to Paris, falls catastrophically in love, and returns to London, where Elizabeth has embarked on a chilly affair. Digby dies; Betsy meets Elizabeth's selfish lover at the wake; the women's guarded friendship becomes even more strained; and, as time drains away, their lives become studies in purposelessness. Each year Brookner presents a morbidly fascinating inquiry into the nature of stoicism and circumstances of bleak rectitude as though issuing an annual report on the psychology of helplessly solitary and obscenely idle individuals. Shrewd and idiosyncratic, these tense interior dramas offer piquant pleasures thanks to Brookner's mordant wit, gorgeous language, and acute understanding of the axis between pride and shame, loneliness and misanthropy, integrity and cruelty. She also offers sterling insights into the differences between men and women and the peculiar voluptuousness of obsessive self-regard. --Donna Seaman Copyright 2003 Booklist


Publisher's Weekly Review

To read Brookner is to be reminded of fiction's potential to stun, with full, complex characters in a richly imagined world, as she draws on her insights into human nature to explore the strained yet enduring friendship of two women of "the last virginal generation." Born in 1948 and friends from childhood, the open, eager-to-please Betsy and the cooler, analytical Elizabeth appear to have little in common. But they share many things, including stubbornness, strength and, dangerously, the same married lover. Seen through the eyes of 50-something Elizabeth, the novel chronicles the often devastating choices the two women make as they age; as such, it is more a book of thought than action. The reclusive Elizabeth, conscious of the mysterious "virtue attached to being a witness," dissects the minutest of human interactions, imposing elaborate rules of self-governance with which she often does battle. Her gaze is ruthless but brilliantly illuminating. "I saw our childlessness as an indictment, a reproach to what had been our folly," Elizabeth observes of herself and Betsy. "We had seen ourselves always as lovers, whereas sensible persons, or perhaps those with greater understanding of the world, make their peace with existing circumstances.... we had chosen, she and I, to stay within the limits of this exalted and fragile condition." Within those limits, in Brookner's skilled hands, vast worlds of human possibility exist. (Jan.) Forecast: Brookner has established a dedicated readership through such books as the Booker-winning Hotel du Lac and Making Things Better. This elegant, thought-provoking novel will surely increase it. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Library Journal Review

There is a predictable formula to Brookner's novels. Start with a middle-aged female heroine of modest wealth, genteel breeding, and solid education: in this outing, it is Elizabeth Wetherall, who may live in an era of email and text messaging but would still seem at home in the pages of a Victorian novel. Give her a lonely history: Elizabeth has escaped her parents' fractious marriage to a quieter one of her own-to a man many years her senior who spends his days at work and his evenings asleep in front of the television. Throw in some minor complications: she becomes estranged from her only friend when the childhood schoolmate takes up with her lover. Finally, end with disappointment: it is a rare Brookner heroine who exits buoyant and hopeful. Verdict: well crafted but soulless. Purchase where demand warrants.-Barbara Love, Kingston Frontenac P.L., Ont. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

1 We met, and became friends of a sort, by virtue of the fact that we started school on the same day. Because we had the same Christian name it was decreed that she should choose an alternative. For some reason--largely, I think, because she was influenced by the sort of sunny children's books available in our milieu--she decided to be known as Betsy. When we met up again, several years later, she was Betsy de Saint-Jorre. Not bad for a girl initially registered as Elizabeth Newton. How much nicer children were in those days than the adults they have become! Born in 1948, we were well-behaved, incurious, with none of the rebellious features adopted by those who make youthfulness a permanent quest. We went to tea in one another's houses, sent each other postcards when we went on holiday with our parents, assumed we would know each other all our lives . . . The Sixties took us by surprise: we were unprepared, unready, uncomprehending. That, I now see, was why I married Digby: it was the right, unthinking thing to do. That was why Betsy took it upon herself to have a career, out of despair, perhaps, at not being provided for. Choice hardly dictated our actions. Yet I suppose we were contented enough. Certainly we knew no better. And now we know too much. Discretion veiled our motives then, and perhaps does so even now, even in an age of multiple communications, of e-mails, text messages, and news bulletins all round the clock. We still rely on narrative, on the considered account. That is how and why I knew Betsy's story, though I cannot claim to know all of it. There were areas of confusion which it seemed better not to disclose. But she was always painfully honest, rather more so than prudence might advise. That quality made itself felt when we were still children; her desire to explain herself, to be known, was perhaps really a desire to be loved. That too was discernible, and it set her apart. In later life, when I knew her again, that quality was still there, obscured only slightly by the manners she had acquired, and always at odds with her mind, which was exacting. In other circumstances she might have been remarkable. But her hopes had been curtailed, and in the years of her adulthood one sometimes saw this, in the odd distant glance directed towards a window, or the eagerness with which she smiled at any passing child. Her initial demotion from Elizabeth to Betsy was thought to be justified, given her uncertainty of status. She took it in her stride, thinking it gave her permission to assume an altogether different character, someone more lighthearted, skimming the surface, responding always with a smile. She longed to be superficial, with the sort of ease that I and my particular coterie took for granted. Adult responsibility, of an altogether unwelcome kind, had already come her way, in the shape of her widowed father and the faded aunt who kept some sort of primitive life going in that flat above the surgery in Pimlico Road. She was unfortunate: that was generally agreed, and it made her something of an anomaly in our midst. My mother professed sympathy for her, but viewed with dislike Betsy's attempts to be winning when she came to our house in Bourne Street, on the rare occasions when I was obliged to invite her. The enthusiasm with which she greeted my mother's teatime offerings (meagre enough in those days of austerity) and the attention she paid to the contents of our drawing-room were not attractive, and my mother was not tactful in acknowledging the evidence of Betsy's social awkwardness. I had many years in which to reflect on my mother's harshness. Even when young I was aware of a desire to depart from this, to be less brittle, less proud, less conformist than my mother. Now I see that I have not quite managed it. My only victory is that the harshness has been internalized. My judgements even now are sometimes less than charitable. There was another reason for my mother's dislike, and that had to do with the cause of Betsy's profound disenfranchisement. Her father's negligence, or incompetence, had led indirectly to the death of one of his patients, who happened to be an acquaintance of ours. Pity and dislike, first manifested by my mother, affected Betsy even more than her father's disgrace, which she inherited. It seemed ordained to follow her through life, for there was nothing she could do to rectify it. His error was, I dare say, a common one: a lump in the breast which he assured his patient was a cyst revealed its malignancy in due course and led not only to that patient's demise but to his own, after a year of brooding and of unpopular comment in the neighbourhood. I met him once, when I went home with Betsy, the only time I did so; he entered what I suppose had once been her nursery, where we were discussing our homework, turned off the electric fire and opened the window. I found this insensitive, though it may have been protective, but there was little in his demeanour which struck me as kindly. I thought him completely inadequate to fulfil the role of father, but I think he was simply indifferent to children. His better manners were reserved for his patients, in particular for his female patients. Maybe a desire to reassure, or even to comfort, came uppermost in his professional armoury. There was no whisper of impropriety, or none that I was aware of. His greater failure was his dwindling reputation in the year that followed our friend's death, and his own death, from a heart attack, while sitting at his desk in his consulting-room, an irony he was spared. Irony was not a quality much appreciated in the 1950s. Now of course it is all-pervasive. Sympathy was expressed, condolences were offered, and then the incident was forgotten, though not the fate of the patient. It was thought fitting that he should disappear, and that Betsy should be consigned to her aunt. This aunt--Mary to her niece, Miss Milsom to everyone else--was even less promising than her brother-in-law. Tall, thin, colourless, and obviously virginal, she inspired a vague repugnance even in those unliberated days. 'Poor thing,' said my mother, with a rich show of sympathy, but here again her dislike, or more probably her distaste, was evident, perhaps justifiably so. Miss Milsom had come to keep house after her sister's death, shortly after the birth of Betsy, and she did so in a conscientious but defeated manner, so that it took her all day to prepare a meal which was no doubt unpalatable. After commiserating with Miss Milsom, or more probably for Miss Milsom, my mother would laugh, showing all her sparkling teeth, as if to demonstrate the difference between Miss Milsom and herself. Nowadays, of course, we would assume that Miss Milsom and the doctor indulged in sex of a sort, but then we assumed no such thing. Those were innocent days; sex had yet to become the commodity on offer to all that it is now. By the same token there was little show of love between the aunt and the niece, neither of whom had been able to envisage an alternative to their present arrangement, but they were both loyal and obedient people, and they sustained an undemanding harmony, which, though honourable, provided little joy. Betsy proved to be a clever girl, who was obliged to keep her cleverness to herself, except at school, where she developed a passion for the drama, and was given to declaiming lines from Shakespeare and even Racine (we were doing Hamlet and Béré- nice); it was her one opportunity to deliver herself of aspiration (and it was aspiration rather than frustration) and to make contact with adult emotion. The solution Betsy and her aunt made to their mutual lack of comprehension was their weekly visit to the cinema, usually on a Saturday evening, when they enjoyed a timid contact with the crowd. An early supper, the cinema, and a cup of tea on their return to the flat satisfied Miss Milsom's sense of a justified indulgence, both for herself and for her niece. She viewed the films as an outsider: not for her the extravagance, the licence, the romance. Even so, something in her disciplined soul responded, whereas Betsy remained faithful to the grander concepts in her favourite Racine. 'Que le jour recommence, et que le jour finisse/Sans que jamais Titus puisse voir Bérénice . . .' These lines became prophetic, so that at the very end, when I visited her in the hospital, I would see her eyes widen in her thin face, and hear her murmur, '. . . sans que de tout le jour . . .,' and then fall silent. Excerpted from The Rules of Engagement: A Novel by Anita Brookner All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.