Paul Sturgis is in the twilight of his life. He's retired, well-situated, financially comfortable--and alone. He's been alone his entire life, but only now does it become painfully obvious. Yes, he's reaping the practical rewards of playing it safe, always doing as expected, and staying close to the middle of the road. But as he travels the last stretch of road into the sunset of his life he finds himself dissatisfied with his lot and it isn't only that he has no one in the seat beside him to share the ride.
Sturgis welcomes a disruptive change in his all-too-well-ordered life. Or thinks he does until he gets his wish in the form of two women. One is a true stranger, a woman he meets on a trip to Venice. The other is an old lover, who left him years ago to marry another man, and who remains an enigma.
The disruption caused by these two women leave Sturgis torn between wanting to retreat to his formally uneventful life and the need to break through to...what? This is essentially the dilemma Sturgis confronts in "Strangers." What does he really want, this agreeable, amiable man who never dared to want anything but a quiet, uneventful life and a partner he would be content to please?
As she always does, Brookner dissects with virtuoso delicacy the amorphous, always-shifting psychological state of her principle character. What she manages to pin down here is precisely what can't be pinned down--the elusive satisfaction we all seek, an apotheosis that is always more in the pursuit than in the attainment.
Filled with the accumulated wisdom of a lifetime, "Strangers" has the pared-down poignancy of an elegy to life. At 83, Brookner writes now as if she's well aware that each book can be her last. If that is the case with "Strangers," she's set a fitting capstone on the pyramid of her life's work.
"Once the pains of love were relegated to the past the pains of living became more noticeable."
"He had privately observed that God was unjust, or, even worst than that, He was indifferent. To the pronouncement, I am that I am, went the unspoken addendum, Deal with it."
"Was love merely an intrinsic part of youthful energy?"
"The past was hateful because it encoded one's mistakes, and was thus less about youth than about what one had done with it, and how close it had brought one to the fact of mortality."
"That life of making do, of making the best of a comfortable but uncomforting existence, could no longer be sustained. He supposed that he would go back to it eventually, but seen from here it registered as a last resort, rather like a hospital, or rather in the same category as a hospital, a place to die."
"The same desire for a better life, or at least for a different life, probably visited everyone once satisfied with what had been worked for, the same longing for some sort of reward, the same defiance, the same claim to more life. That was one of the dubious endowments of aging, a conviction that one's desires had not been met, that there was in fact no reward, and that the way ahead was simply one of endurance."
"Memory was now porous; little survived of the past to sustain him, and what did survive was infused with regret. But this regret too was valedictory, something to be renounced, as one abandons a lost cause. It was to other agencies that he now entrusted what remained of his life. Like a man at the dawn of time he put his faith in the return of the sun, the benign and vivifying light that would eventually bring fruition."