Brief Lives

by Anita Brookner. Random House, $20.00. When a novel opens with “Julia died,” the reader is entitled to expect something in the way of tension or action, if only a family row over the will. Ms. Brookner provides nothing of the sort. Her narrator, Fay, has to consider herself a friend of Julia’s, although she never liked that arrogant, self-centered, slyly catty ex-diseuse, and assumes that Julia found her boring despite a loose professional connection. Fay had been a promising singer, on radio, of the type of sentimental ballad popular in the 1940s, but gave it up when she fell in love with a handsome, energetic lawyer. The man had a batty and possessive mother and a house decorated in chichi by his divorced wife. Ignoring these impediments, Fay married him, committing herself to a life of meek obedience and suppressed resentment. It may be Ms. Brookner’s intention to prove that a heroine who resembles a torpid jellyfish can be made appealing, but if so, it is a regrettable ambition. Julia—by far the best-realized, if also the nastiest, character in the novel—is right: Fay is boring, whether one views her as an individual or as a social specimen.

—Phoebe-Lou Adams