by Anita Brookner
Blanche Vernon is on her own. After twenty years of seemingly contented marriage, her husband has left her for another, much younger, much less stable, and almost completely undependable woman. Why? Cast adrift, Blanche finds her otherwise empty days an opportunity to fully indulge her propensity for aimless wandering and speculative musing. She satisfies both at the museum. Here she is particularly struck by the stark difference in attitude between the great classical paintings that, on one side, depict the Christian saints and martyrs, and, on the other, depict the gods and goddesses of Greek myth.
Blanche contrasts the ethics of voluntary suffering she sees raised to a virtue in the paintings of the martyrs versus the celebration of pleasure-seeking amorality in the depictions of the pagan deities. Eventually she develops a theory to explain what she sees as two rival mythologies--and two incompatible life strategies. And she applies this theory to her own life, finding in it comfort, instruction, and, most importantly of all, an explanation of her failed marriage.
In Blanche's estimation, there are two sorts of people in the world. Those, like her, and like the saints and martyrs of the paintings, who sublimate their own appetites and always attempt to do well by others. And those, like her husband's lover, who simply and selfishly go after what they want in life no matter the collateral damage. Blanche concludes that she is more a victim of her mistaken identification with the wrong mythology than anything else. What she always saw as "selfishness" and "amorality" were, in fact, the very will to live.
In order to study up-close the kind of person she could never quite be herself, Blanche befriends a thoroughly selfish young woman named Sally. Vain, carefree, living only for the moment, Sally is the feminine type that men like her husband seem to find a source of eternal fascination. But while Sally provides Blanche with a useful model of the archetypal femme fatale, it is Sally's silent, serious, largely neglected stepdaughter, Elinor, with whom Blanche sympathizes and who she seeks to save.
In the end, though, it is Blanche herself who needs saving, caught as she is in an unendurable limbo: unable to be a mythic goddess, no longer willing to be a martyred saint. How Brookner resolves what she sets up as Blanche's unresolvable predicament makes "A Misalliance" not only a deeply compelling and richly rewarding novel of ideas, but, inasmuch as a quiet, elegantly written psychological character study of a middle-aged woman can be, a riveting page-turner.
"Her neighbors thought her unapproachable and therefore did not approach her. This did not amaze her for she was so intensely occupied in her attempt to resolve inner contradictions that she rarely noticed the signals she gave out."
"She did not expect art to console her. Why should it? It may be that there is no consolation. But, like most people, she did expect it to take her out of herself, and was constantly surprised when it returned her to herself with no comment."
"If one is not very careful, free will can come to mean there being no good reason for getting up in the morning, becoming ridiculously dependent on the weather, developing odd little habits, talking to oneself, and not having very interesting conversations with anyone else."
"She was always quite conscious of her aberrations, which was why they rarely got out of hand."
"For Sally, like Mousie, like those cynical smiling nymphs in the National Gallery, had known, with an ancient knowledge, that the world respects a predator, that the world will be amused by, interested in, indulgent towards the charming libertine. At that moment Blanche knew herself to be part of the fallen creation, doomed to serve, to be faithful, to be honorable, to be excluded."
"It occurred to her that she had never been deceived; merely surprised. Eternally surprised by the appetites of others and the lengths to which these appetites would take them. And she had been naive to think of this trait as selfishness, when it was life itself in its brutal urgings and promptings. It was the lesson she had never learned, being too schooled and educated in careful manners, and hoping to win her reward by scrupulous good faith."
"She had made her usual mistakes, thinking love to be easy, sweet, natural, reposeful, understood. Just as she had thought that love, once reciprocated could be counted as a blessed state, without thoughts of possession. I was foolish, she thought. I have never fully understood the laws of property. If I had, I should not be alone, at this moment, and apparently forced to remain so."