For Ruth Weiss, books have always provided solace, escape, and advice in dealing with the harsh realities of life. They've also provided her with a career as a well-respected Balzac scholar. But as Dr. Weiss looks back on her life at forty, she wonders if she somehow misunderstood the lessons to be gleaned from a lifetime of reading great literature. Has she identified with the "wrong" literary types, modeled herself on the long-suffering heroines whose virtuous behavior is so often richly rewarded in fiction...and hardly ever rewarded in real life?
In "The Debut," Anita Brookner takes up the story of Ruth's life from a dysfunctional childhood to a stifled middle-life in an attempt to answer this question. As Brookner tells it, Ruth's tale is by turns hilarious, touching, and, in the end, deeply unsettling. Try as she might to break free, Ruth seems doomed to play true to the literary type with which she by turns identifies and despises: the good woman, the dutiful daughter. Was Ruth's character determined by her reading, or were her reading preferences the result of her inherent character and therefore fated from the start? By the time Ruth asks herself these questions it is already too late (if, indeed, it wasn't always too late) and this slow-dawning revelation is the disturbing dark side of what is otherwise a deceptively light, witty, and thoroughly entertaining read.
"Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature."
"Ruth wondered how she was going to fill the day. With anticipation, of course. That is how most women in love fill their day. Frequently the even anticipated turns out to be quite dull compared with the mood that preceded it. The onus for redeeming the situation rests on the other person, who is, of course, in no position to know of the preceding mood. Thus both fail and both are disappointed."
"She studied the couple closely, as if they were an unknown species. They were, in fact, an unknown species. They were happy."
"Don't make a mess of this. Don't give in too easily. String him along. Take another lover. Keep him guessing. Break the odd appointment. How on earth do you think I got Brian after all these years?"
Ruth looked sadly at her friend. "Is it all a game then?"
Anthea looked sadly back. "Only if you win. If you lose, it's far more serious."
"Ruth began to think of the world in terms of Balzacian opportunism. Her insights improved. She perceived that most tales of morality were wrong, that even Charles Dickens was wrong, and that the world is not won by virtue."
"If the moral code she had learned--through the literature she was now beginning to reinterpret--were correct, she should have flourished in her heavy unbecoming coat, in her laborious solitude, with her notes and the daily bus ride and the healthful lonely walks. Yet here she was, looking really not too bad, having spent more than half of her money, eating and drinking better than she had ever done in her life, and absconding from the Bibliotheque Nationale to spend time with another woman's husband."
"Selfishness and greed and bad faith and extravagance had made her into this semblance of a confident and attractive woman, had performed the miracle of forcing her to grow up and deal competently with the world. People seemed to like her more this way."