Anita Brookner’s novel Leaving Home is deceivingly thin, the text quite dense. The story centers around Emma Roberts, a young twenty-something struggling less to to “leave” than to truly define “home.” She lives in London with her lymphatic, widowed mother. Emma herself lives a reserved and thoughtful life, always desiring to break through that shell, but never fully motivated to do so. In a surprise move, she defies the wishes of her mother and unlikeable uncle by leaving London to study in France.
While in France, Emma meets Francoise, a bright and energetic friend to contrast her own subdued demeanor. Their friendship, on the surface, is an unlikely one. Francoise frequently regales Emma with stories of her male conquests and displays little in the way of genuine concern for Emma’s own inability to make intimate connections. Francoise is more curious than anything about Emma’s remote personality. I enjoyed the many interactions between these two women, particularly the way in which Emma identifies their different roles in the friendship. She understands that she is to be patient and longsuffering with Francoise, that she is “safe,” uncomplicated, no threat to the exuberant French woman (who, understandably, does not get on well with other women). Francoise, for her part, is meant to supply the adventures and irrepresible joie de vive that Emma herself can’t muster. Emma becomes more aware of herself through this friendship, and though there is ultimately no significant change to her outlook on life, she make some interesting observations.
I think Brookner does a wonderful job of creating a place in this book, or two places really – London and Paris. I know nothing of either of these two cities, but Emma make plenty of interesting connections between the two.
It is difficult to say if Emma really ever succeeds in “leaving home.” She spends much of the book back and forth between London and Paris, each populated by an untraditional (yet completely fitting with her reality) version of a lover. It seems that the moment she’s in Paris, she longs for London, but the moment she’s in London, all she can think of is Paris. She concedes, “I was now rootless in two places.” I think the least satisfying part of the book is that she doesn’t undergo the kind of change I was hoping to see. It’s Francoise, ironically, who undergoes the greatest transformation. Emma more or less excuses her lack of epiphany by closing the book with “Not everyone is born to fulfil a heroic role.” While I had to raise a brow at that, I do like how the thought continues, “The only realistic ambition is to live in the present. And sometimes, quite often in fact, this is more than enough to keep one busy.”
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