"Dolly" by Anita Brookner

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A first-person narrator named Jane tells the story of her aunt Dolly in this novel of family uneven fortune and emotional manipulation. It features uniformly strong characterizations throughout, and proves once again Anita Brookner a pass master in the family arena. It proves Brookner’s mastery of all types of family dramas. 

Dolly, who comes of age during World War II, lives her life in a constant state of lack - she lacks love, she lacks the material means to live comfortably, and she certainly lacks any scruples about pointing out the difference between her circumstances and those of her late husband’s family. Her expectation that  family or loved ones will contribute to her economic well-being is the salient and constant feature of her personality. I consider the characterization of Dolly to be challenging, but brilliantly executed by Brookner. 

This pecuniary dependence colors everything in Dolly’s life, from the time she’s a little girl in Vienna. She marries Hugo, a fairly well-off Londoner, and extricates him from his mother’s clutches by having him take a job in Brussels. Brookner devotes quite a lot of narrative to the questionable, slightly creepy relationship between Hugo and his mother Etty, and the point, I think, is to develop Hugo’s wishy-washy character and his susceptibility to Dolly. Dolly and Hugo mow through Hugo’s money, and then Hugo dies unexpectedly. So Dolly returns to London, hoping Hugo’s family will take care of her, but she runs into a roadblock in Hugo’s mom.

Dolly’s dependence becomes a family heirloom; first she asks Hugo’s mother, then after her passing, she transfers her dependence to Henrietta, Hugo’s sister. Our narrator, Jane, is Henrietta’s daughter, and as Henrietta dies in her turn, Jane rebels against the apparent obligation to throw money at Dolly. But the rebellion doesn’t last.

Jane has a hard-to-credit epiphany about Dolly, and winds up setting Dolly up happily in a small London flat, surrounded by new and accepting friends.

Brookner concludes her novel with a discussion of feminist issues, which she brings up as Jane, a celebrated children’s author, gives lectures on Sleeping Beauty at a couple of American universities. There she is quizzed by women in academia on her position on various issues; the whole thing gives Jane pause … she can’t help but think about feminism against the backdrop of her experience with Dolly. Jane thinks of her as a “working woman,” highly adaptable, who made a career out of getting by.

In the end Jane acknowledges and agrees with her American friends’ views on feminine personhood, but can’t help hearing a voice, an offstage echo as it were, that asserts the old ineluctable questions, Will I be loved, will I be saved? She knows Dolly comes from a different epoch, another world in which support for women could not be relied upon. This last-minute consideration of modern feminist issues moves Jane to an even deeper understanding: she learns that love is unpredictable, that one may love someone for whom she has felt distaste, even detestation. Jane learns that love only unreliably attaches one to someone worthy.

I admire the inclusion of these discussions in modern gender politics at the end of Dolly. They bring Dolly’s struggles into deeper focus, and add a level of enjoyment and appreciation to the novel’s characters.

"Olive, Again" by Elizabeth Strout

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There is something uncanny about the way Elizabeth Strout portrays her famous and familiar protagonist, Olive Kitteridge. In its blunt exposition Strout’s treatment achieves both a subtle exposition of change and a blunt assessment of Olive’s warts and attractions. In fact, the only thing blunter than a pronouncement by plain-spoken Olive is Strout’s description of her through the months and years of her dotage. Through a magisterial tour of Olive’s latter years, we learn the need for honesty, particularly honesty with oneself; the interconnectedness of life in a small town; and the absolute need to stop anticipating what’s coming up and what’s already been, but to enjoy the moment at hand. The late days of Olive Kitteridge prove in Olive, Again just as readable,
just as revelatory, just as captivating as her earlier days in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge.

In this sequel we ultimately see Olive in a very telling, very surprising moment of self-knowledge, and the way Strout renders this moment in all its stunning inevitability, colored by Olive’s irascible personality, proves the author’s utter mastery. The cunning author lays out invisible groundwork for change in Olive and I just didn’t see it coming. Is it ever worth the wait!

As in the prequel, Strout illuminates the fraught, often desperately lonely lives of Crosby, Maine, in short independent stories. The characters have aged, naturally enough, as has Olive. With the exception of one eighth-grade girl who cleans houses, Crosby’s denizens come to light in the autumn of their lives. We are given by various means to understand these are difficult people, not very enlightened, nor exposed to much of what the world offers. Children who have grown have moved away and remained estranged. People who visit are mostly struck by the oddness and lack of polish of small-town Mainers.

No one is odder or less polished than Olive. Known throughout her life as one who would speak her mind openly and often rudely, Olive is still opinionated. As she has aged, what decorum she may have had has worn off, burnished by her clear sight and curmudgeonly nature. But something else happens here, something happens to Olive as she ages, something unexpected. If good fiction deals with changes and growth in characters, then this constitutes excellent fiction indeed. Somehow Strout has made growth and change in Olive - which readers would give about one chance in a million - appear inevitable. 

Fit this one into your schedule. Read both for the full treatment. They’re unforgettable.