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In her superbly accomplished novel, Anita Brookner proves that she is our most profound observer of women's lives, posing questions about feminine identity and desire with a stylishness that conveys an almost sensual pleasure.
From the moment Jane Manning first meets her aunt Dolly, she is both fascinated and appalled. Where Jane is tactful and shy, Dolly is flamboyant and unrepentantly selfish, a connoisseur of fine things, an exploiter of wealthy people. But as the exigencies of family bring Jane and Dolly together, Brookner shows us that we may end up loving people we cannot bring ourselves to like -- and that this paradox makes love all the more precious and miraculous.
Darkly beautiful, ardent Dolly, her stolid spouse in tow, favors her London in-laws and shy young niece Jane with heady, random visits from Brussels. Dolly's eagerness, her hunger for love (though she has none to give) mesmerize Jane, who is the percipient narrator of Brookner's latest delicately brooding novel. Soon the widowed Dolly, ``always needy, always greedy,'' shows up in her silks, her faux pearls, her mink sprayed with Joy perfume. Contemptuous of Jane and her sedately affluent parents, Dolly sponges brazenly from them to indulge a craving for luxuries. Jane and Dolly dislike each other, and their antipathy gives a fine, shimmering edge to Jane's insight. Dolly's exultant moment comes at age 68, when she can flaunt her most flattering accessory--vulgarian Harry, owner of a fleet of taxis, who enables her to fulfill ``archaic female longings.'' Brookner ( Fraud ) renders with impeccable finesse the complexities of female desire as she meditates on the emotional legacies left by mothers to daughters. Parallel chapters depict the girlhoods of Dolly and Jane's mother, both resonant with continental Jewish culture, both engendering needs. Jane's brush with American feminists sparks a query: ``If they . . . emancipate themselves from their ancestral longings, will they be disappointed?'' The ambiguous, subtly shifting relationship between Dolly and Jane enters an astonishing dimension as Brookner brilliantly unfolds their story.