260 pages. $20. None of the lives of the characters in Anita Brookner's new novel, "Brief Lives," is actually very brief at all. The shortest spans 52 years -- and a half-century is a goodly interval, after all -- while those of the major characters stretch on into the 70s and 80s, into the realm of advanced old age.
But of course, years alone are not the full measure of a life. Against those other measures -- youthful dreams fulfilled or faded, opportunities seized or missed, mistakes eluded or incurred -- the lives Ms. Brookner describes are brief indeed, never long enough for rectification, for rearrangement or restitution. Against the march of time, against the drumming tides of fate, they register fleetingly, uncertainly, mere whispers in the muddled roar of existence.
Fay Landon is an elderly woman who looks back on her life after learning that Julia, a longtime "friend" of dubious sincerity, has died. Fay's life as she recalls it had auspicious beginnings, in a warm home where she was an adored only child, then in a modestly successful career as a '20s chanteuse of sentimental love songs. But then came marriage to Owen, a handsome and sought-after London lawyer with whom she fell passionately in love.
Though filled at first with gratitude at having won this marvelous prize, Fay soon learns that sexual passion recedes and, unless it has been founded on deeper attachments, leaves little but a wasteland behind. As it turns out, Owen is incapable of real emotional intimacy, and the marriage is ultimately barren, in every sense.
Ms. Brookner is, as usual, extraordinarily deft in illustrating how the early hope of marriage fades into disillusionment, how a woman trapped at home (having, according to the custom of her time, given up her career) grows slowly inward, away from life; how she learns, too late, the painful lesson that "it is not necessary to marry every man one loves."
Through her marriage to Owen, Fay becomes acquainted with Julia, the wife of Owen's law partner. Although they share a professional background, Julia having been a famous cabaret star, the two women are in fact polar opposites -- where Fay is passive, insecure, reflective, Julia is assertive, self-assured, vacuous. They dislike each other but are thrown together, taking trips with their husbands, visiting back and forth.
For the rest of her life, although her constant intention is to drop Julia, Fay finds her fate intertwined with the other woman's -- first through a secret affair with Julia's husband, Charlie, after Owen's death and later, after Charlie dies, through a sense of guilt, obligation, familiarity and even growing identity with the fading, bitter, old recluse.
If Julia is meant to be a major character in "Brief Lives," as she seems to be, she is a bit of a failure on Ms. Brookner's part. The portrait of the aging vamp, sitting in her dreary flat, dressed to the nines and issuing orders to her coterie of female attendants, is a little too pat and stereotypical to arouse much interest. Julia is at best a one-dimensional figure, at worst a cipher, a device serving only as a foil to Fay's more complex character. She looms in the background as a sort of cardboard conscience against which Fay measures her own timidity, her guilelessness, her fear of and desire for life and love, her innocence and her guilt.
But when it comes to Fay, whose story this really is, Ms. Brookner once again has wrought her expected artistry. This is a real woman, of the sort one can imagine London may well be full of, desperately living a quiet unobtrusive life in a neat little flat, hiding the disappointment that is her daily companion, repressing the amorphous desire that constantly threatens her hard-won peace.
In this review of a long but essentially uneventful existence, Ms. Brookner is masterly at capturing the sense of how life -- real life, the wonderful life we always planned to have -- seems to have passed us by while we were busy, so that when we look back, we wonder how we could have bungled things so. Yet at the same time, she notes with great gentleness the uselessness of struggling against one's nature, the inevitability of the paths we tread. Our lives may be brief, she says, but we live them, each of us, in the only way we can.
Ms. Smardz is a writer living in Orlando, Fla.