” I am not a fascinating woman,” reflects Edith Hope as she sits in an out-of-season Swiss hotel trying to decide how she should make her way through life. But there is something about this quiet, plain woman who wears comfy cardigans and prefers the quietude of her garden to drinks parties and social gatherings, that makes her fellow guests gravitate towards her.
Perhaps it’s because, like her, they are all adrift; washed up at a lakeside hotel that provides solace to those in need by sticking stolidly to its traditions.
Edith is a romantic novelist who’s been exiled to the hotel after an indiscretion that outraged her friends. The other guests include the beautiful Monica; a young woman with an eating disorder who’s been sent to the hotel by her husband along with an ultimatum — sort herself out and produce a son and heir otherwise she’ll be history. Then there’s Madame de Bonnueil, an elderly widow who is despatched to the hotel every summer by a daughter in law who considers her a nuisance. And finally the overbearing, self-indulgent Mrs Pusey and her curiously clinging daughter who spend their lives flitting around the shopping capitals of the world in pursuit of exquisite hand embroidered lingerie thanks to the generosity of the long-dead but not lamented Mr Pusey.
They confide in Edith and use her as a fresh audience for anecdotes told repeatedly to anyone who will listen. Edith observes them all, as she drifts around the hotel and its environs, trying but failing to write her newest novel and all the while writing to the mysterious ‘David’. Brookner teases her readers with suggestions that a secret affair with this married man was the ‘unfortunate lapse’ that landed Edith in Switzerland. It’s not until the last few chapters that we learn the truth.
This is a novel that’s written in a clean and unadorned form of prose which yet manages to captures the atmosphere of this retreat and the foibles of its guests. Nothing much happens for most of the book. Only the arrival of the single, wealthy businessman Mr Neville disturbs the Edith’s routine of solitary walks along the lake shake, much partaking of cake in the one and only cafe in town, and then dinner in the hotel.
Mr Neville succeeds in penetrating Edith’s facade, challenging her presumption that her only options for the future are spinsterhood or a marriage based on the romantic ideal of love that feature in her novels. What he offers her is a third way. He needs the kind of wife who will never cause a scandal and take great of his home and especially his collection of famille rose dishes. In return she will gain a recognised social position giving her the freedom to behave as she wishes, protected from castigation and recrimination.
“You will find that you can behave as badly as you like. As badly as everybody else like too. ….And you will be respected for it. People will at last feel comfortable with you,” he tells her.
As the basis of a relationship, it sounds more like a business transaction than a declaration of affection. Whether it’s one that Edith decides to buy into is something I’m not going to reveal. At the heart of the decision however is an interesting question about the way society views single women of a certain age and whether they can only achieve social acceptance by virtue of marriage.
The book isn’t long enough to do full justice to this theme unfortunately, nor is the resolution of Edith’s dilemma fully convincing. Are these flaws sufficient grounds for the vocal criticism which greeted the announcement that Hotel du Lac was the winner of the Booker Prize for 1984? Malcolm Bradbury called the novel “parochial”, and absolutely not the sort of book that should have won the prize while The New Statesman called Brookner’s novel “pretentious”. Both seem unfair criticism – while Hotel du Lac doesn’t have the same depth as winners by Michael Ondaatje or Thomas Keneally or the scale of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, but it’s still a well written novel that poses challenging questions and holds the attention long after the pages are closed.
Just as an aside, I found it impossible to read this novel without remembering the wonderful portrayal of Edith in the film version released in 1986. Anna Massey was exactly how I imagined Edith.