Hotel du Lac: Anita Brookner

“Good women always think it is their fault when someone else is being offensive. Bad women never take the blame for anything.”

Edith Hope, an unmarried author of romantic novels has done something bad. Initially we don’t know quite what ‘it‘ is, but whatever happened may have something to do with the affair she conducted with a married man. Edith is packed off, by a somewhat domineering friend, to a Swiss Hotel, the Hotel du Lac which gives “a mild form of sanctuary.”  It’s off-season in this grand, off-the beaten-track, old-fashioned hotel that accommodates to a certain type of guest catering to “the respected patrons of an earlier era of tourism.”

It seems to be permanently reserved for women. And for a certain kind of woman. Cast-off or abandoned, paid to stay away, or to do harmless womanly things, like spending money on clothes.

As an author, Edith is a veteran people-watcher and she is intrigued by the guests. There’s the very popular, elegant Mrs Pusey and her fleshy, robust daughter Jennifer, an aged comtessa who’s been shuttled off to the hotel by a daughter-in-law who doesn’t want her around, and then there’s the very beautiful, languid Monica who has an eating disorder which she shares with her co-dependent dog, Kiki.


Edith watches Mrs Pusey “as if under hypnosis.” Mrs Pusey is a favoured guest with the hotel management and whereas Monica sometimes acts badly, Mrs Pusey can be relied upon to behave graciously.  Everything that Mrs Pusey does is an extravagant performance, from her entrance into the dining room, the tales of her tragic widowhood, to her drinking of tea. Since every performance needs an audience, Edith is co-opted by Mrs Pusey to listen to her “opinions, reminiscences, character readings or general views on life’s little problems.” The sole purpose for the Puseys to be in Switzerland seems to be shopping as “abroad was seen mainly as a repository for luxury goods,” especially lingerie. They’re always off buying knickers according to the refreshingly acidic Monica whose occasionally embarrassing displays are in welcome contrast to the affected manners of the Puseys and their self-loving, fawning mother-daughter routine.

Enter Mr. Neville… an attractive,  comfortably well off, divorced man whose presence shakes up the hotel’s female guests. It’s perhaps no surprise that he zeros in on Monica first, but by the next morning, she’s avoiding him. Assured and slightly sleazy, Mr Neville professes to have “the secret of contentment,” and he advises Edith that “to assume your own centrality may mean an entirely new life.”

Without a huge emotional investment, one can do whatever one pleases. One can take decisions, change one’s mind, alter one’s plans. There is none of the anxiety of waiting to see if that one other person has everlasting she desires, if she is discontented, upset, restless, bored. One can be as pleasant or as ruthless as one wants. If one is prepared to do the one thing one is drilled out of doing from earliest childhood–simply please oneself-there is no reason why one should ever be unhappy again.

Brookner’s books don’t quite seem to fit in the age in which they take place. I noticed this in Dolly, Undue Influence and Look at Me. All of these books concern single, genteel solitary women engaged in bookish professions. Occasionally some reference brings the reader to a recognition of the times, but it was so easy to imagine we were in the earlier world. Incidentally, Hotel du Lac reminded me of A Month by The Lake which is set in 1937.

In Hotel du Lac there’s once again the theme that the writer’s life and marriage/cohabitation don’t mix (it also appeared in Look At Me). There’s also the idea, touched upon in Look At Me and Undue Influence, that men like a certain kind of woman–these days we’d say ‘high maintenance.’ We only see echoes of Edith’s married lover’s wife, but even these tiny glimpses hint that she is one of Brookner’s high maintenance women. Interesting that the high maintenance women land the men (and sometimes the life of ease) while Brookner’s protagonists are left solo, wondering where they went wrong.

Once again, this is a Brookner novel I loved, and after reading the very melancholy Look At Me, I was ambushed by the book’s humour. I wasn’t quite sold by the ending (can’t give away spoilers here, but I don’t think that Edith would have even contemplated going down the same road twice–if you’ve read the book you’ll know what I mean). But the rest of this wonderful book is perfect: Mrs Pusey and Monica are brilliant character studies. Monica’s edginess and irritability is in perfect contrast to Mrs Pusey’s saccharine perfection. Here’s Monica without her enabler for once:

“But where is Kiki?”

Monica’s face fell. “In disgrace. Locked in the bathroom. Well, you can’t expect a little dog like that to behave as well as he would with his own things around him. And the Swiss hate dogs. That’s what’s wrong with them, if you ask me.”

There’s one wonderful scene in which Mrs Pusey describes her married life with an emphasis on how her late husband used to spoil her, and this gives Mrs Pusey plenty of opportunity to wax on about her wonderful life, her amazing self-sacrifice and her wonderful things while commenting on how good the local shops are:

She dabbed the corners of her mouth again. “Of course, I have everything delivered,” she added. 



Filed under Brookner Anita, Fiction

24 responses to “Hotel du Lac: Anita Brookner

  1. Ah, that quote at the top is the story of my life…! I clearly need to become a bad woman. This was of course de rigeur reading for all expats living on that side of the lake, or even in Geneva, and brings back fond memories of Switzerland. Only one correction to the author’s observations on the Swiss: they are very fond of well-behaved dogs now, and allow them in pretty much all restaurants and cafes.

    • Brookner seems to think that bad women have an easier time of it.
      Kiki is, sadly, not well-behaved. There’s one very funny scene when the dog has “an accident” right in front of everyone. Even though Monica blames the Swiss, it’s clear that it’s not their fault that Kiki isn’t always welcome.

  2. This is a novel I really ought to revisit one day as I read it when I was way too young and inexperienced to fully appreciate its subtleties. Now that I have woken up to the charms of other women writers such as Elizabeth Taylor and Penelope Fitzgerald I feel better placed to go back to it again. Great review as ever, Guy.

  3. I can’t remember of I’ve read it or not. That’s terrible.
    There’s an old fashioned vibe to this story. I agree with you about it the 1930s atmosphere with long term hotel stays and boarding houses. But it’s also Austenian with a man arriving and disrupting a group of women who have nothing else to do that be around him like butterflies.
    These men must have had the cock complex with the commotion they made when they arrived at this hotel-henhouse.

  4. I watched the movie which was very 70s.
    I think I will like this very much. Someone mentioned she’s one of the writes with the biggest vocabulary. Did you notice that as well?

  5. This is a great review, Guy. I confess to never having read any Brookner – what a confession! But lately I’ve heard so many people raving about her, I think this may be the year I end up finally picking one up.

  6. I love those one-liners “That’ s what’s wrong with the Swiss” and “I have everything delivered”. How interesting Brookner is, so often the same basic storyline but tweaked into something different every time.

    • I found myself thinking of Modiano and the idea (that someone said) that he only wrote one book. Modiano tries to work through a handful of themes and Brookner does that too, although her themes are, of course, different. I prefer Brookner of the two

  7. Brookner probably reveals more about her characters whereas Modiano’s books are like set pieces where language is used to create atmosphere and a vivid world.

  8. It’s a long time since I read this – part of my college course actually. I have a few Brookner’s on my shelves but have never returned to her despite having enjoyed this at the time. It was probably the old fashioned ness that meant I didn’t feel the need to follow it up. Now that’s not such an issue as I’m pretty old fashioned myself..

  9. This sounds good. The characters sound interesting.

    I love that passage about the “the secret of contentment.” It reminds me of some people that I know.

  10. I read this twenty years or more ago, but I think still have my copy so should probably reread it. The bit about it feeling of an earlier age rings a bell.

    To be honest, I get that quite often with contemporary novelists who’re very middle class. They seem to live permanently in some slightly antique world untouched by time. I do wonder if in part it’s how people of that class live. With contemporary writers though it may also be that they’re mostly middle-aged and haven’t worked outside literature and aren’t terribly well up on how most people live.

    Lots of writers really only write one book. Jean Rhys’ marvellous series of four novels about women alone are basically the same increasingly brilliant book. I don’t see it as a problem, in the visual arts plenty of painters return repeatedly to the same scene or image after all.

    • Visitors has some of the same themes but since the story is about a 70 year old childless woman, the focus is a bit different from the other novels–as though this is the character we saw in the other books but now she’s at the end of her life.
      What’s worse (than contemporary middle class novelists who live in an antique world) are those who try to write outside of that and have epic fails. And then there’s Hollywood … I remember a film about a waitress who lived in this gorgeous lakeside home. As if that was possible.

      Yes I remember reading Rhys and feeling the same way–although as you say, it’s not a problem.

  11. Thank you for a wonderful review. I read Hotel du Lac recently and really enjoyed it and was impressed by Brookner’s graceful and gently ironic writing style. Edith Hope writes her romances under a “more thrusting name” (I enjoyed that!)

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