The TOAST Book Club is published on the last Friday of every month. This review has been written by Tessa Shaw, co-founder of [email protected] – an independent bookshop just up the road from our Highbury head office. Though it exists in a purely digital sphere we hope that you will add your own opinions and thoughts below.*
When I said I was reviewing Hotel du Lac to someone in the bookshop today they said: ‘20 years too late!’ It's a funny thing, returning to a book I read years ago. To be honest it means much more to me now than it did then. I remember it won the Booker prize in 1984, that it received a lot of stick for beating J G Ballard and for being ‘a slight novel’, not worthy of the accolade. Malcolm Bradbury even declared it ‘parochial’.
Coming to it again, it has haunted me. Conversations I have had with people are taking on a Hotel du Lac sort of weight. This morning I was listening to a programme on the radio about Jane Austen and her life as a spinster with a diminishing income, destined to observe and write and I thought, of course, this is the essence of this book: the lot of a woman. How could people accuse it of being a slight novel with such a theme?
That said, the plot itself is simple. Edith, a romantic novelist, disgraced in some way, finds herself exiled to a stolid, respectable Swiss hotel on the lake in order to 'get over things'.
She is, at first, the melancholy heroine, soaking up the gloomy, dull lustre of the faded, slightly snooty hotel. But her inquiring mind soon leads her into the lives of the other guests who she portrays with a delightful wit. We meet the glamorous Mrs Pusey and her unmarried (not quite as pretty) daughter, the thoroughly disgruntled Monica with her small dog, the elderly abandoned Madame de Boneuil, and the suitor Mr Neville. They all become bit players, each lifting Edith in some way from her solipsism.
The hotel is a familiar motif for a novelist to inhabit but Brookner cleverly uses the space to delve into her protagonist's interior world. Edith, at once realist and romantic, sees herself as 'the mild looking, slightly bony woman in a long cardigan, distant, inoffensive, quite nice eyes, rather large hands and feet'. It becomes clear through the novel that she is struggling with who she is, or at least who she thinks she is, and that she has been sent away until 'everyone decides that I am myself again'.
It is when Edith is alone in her room that she writes letters (that are never sent) to David, the man she loves, the man with whom we learn she had her disgraced affair.
But Edith’s real sin, it seems, is that she has failed to follow the life her friends have mapped out for her. While they settle for a man and marriage she remains an unmarried, single woman in her 30’s.
It is this struggle – this search to understand love and what this elusive word means – that is at the fore of this uneventful, yet beautifully observed, novel. How can she live with integrity without the sustenance of domestic companionship?
Hotel du Lac might be slight but it is potent and subversive. A book that needs to be read… even 20 years on.
Anita Brookner died last year. She never married.
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