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In one of her most delicate and suspenseful novels to date, Anita Brookner brings us an exquisite story of friendship and duty. Rachel Kennedy and Oscar Livingston were not precisely friends or family. Rachel had been acquanted with Oscar for some time, first as her father’s accountant, and then as her own. Part owner of a London bookshop, Rachel is thoroughly independent and somewhat distant, determinedly restrained in her feelings for others, but above all responsible. And it is this trait that leads Oscar and his wife Dorrie to seek out Rachel as a mentor for their twenty-seven-year-old daughter, Heather. Yet when Heather seems poised to make an unsuitable romantic decision, Rachel decides to speak out and intervene, causing an unwitting and devastating insight.
While written in her usual cool, clear, controlled prose, this novel is a bit of a departure for Brookner, less acerbic and ironically witty than her most recent work, Family and Friends, and invested with a bit more suspense. While it is not brimming over with action, specific events do occur; but the novel's outstanding feature is Brookner's preternaturally acute rendering of the delicate nuances of human behavior. The narrator is Rachel, who at 32 has determinedly insulated herself from intimate relationships, narrowing her independent existence to her work in a London bookstore, of which she is part owner, and to a few discreet "adventures'' when she travels. She has ``imposed certain restraints on her feelings,'' has ``resolved never to consider the world well lost for love.'' While the circumstances of her earlier life remain ambiguous, an undisclosed experience has triggered hydrophobia: her dreams of love, of having children, become nightmares in which she drowns. The closest approximation Rachel has to family are the Livingstones, a middle-aged couple who ask her to befriend their 27-year-old daughter Heather. Affable but passive, Heather keeps her own counsel, and Rachel is not made her confidante during Heather's brief marriage. When Heather seems ready to form yet another unsuitable alliance, Rachel seeks to forestall her with an uncharacteristic outburst. And she has an unwitting and devastating insight:``It was not Heather who was endangered, but myself.'' Brookner too has made a breakthrough: this is the most involving of her works and the easiest to relate to.