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If anyone can capture what makes Sunday afternoons - and lives of quiet desperation - so melancholy, it's Anita Brookner. In Undue Influence, an isolating and wistful sorrow pervades the life of Claire Pitt, a young woman working in a dusty second-hand London bookshop run by two elderly spinsters with an undying devotion to their deceased father, a supposed "man of letters." Claire edits St. John Collier's writings in the tomb-like shop basement, an apt setting for her dormant self-esteem. Mostly she is distracted and saved from deadly boredom by a pile of moldering 1950s women's magazines, feeding her fantasies of finding a satisfying female role in simplistic black and white.
After her mother's death, Claire becomes even more detached, believing herself to be less than she should be, and wanting more than she thinks she deserves. She walks the streets of London observing and analyzing others' actions, removed from even the sound of her own footsteps. Then one day a rare customer enters the shop. He's attractive and needy, with the weakness of character destined to dissipate Claire's remaining motivation to define her life. Tragically, she blames herself for giving in to this psychological script by exerting "undue influence" over this grown man. Their affair meanders aimlessly, like its characters, until Claire manages to alter the direction of her life with the simplest of gestures.
It's easy to miss the epiphany, but not to be missed is Brookner's courage in bringing solitude to the surface, with all its pain and terrors. Desperate, lonely thoughts make up this entire story, leaving room for insights so sharp their cuts are barely felt. Whittling an existence from indifferent fate, Brookner's characters are courageous, not pitiable, and their slightest victories are set glittering against such austere lives.
Deanna Larson is a writer in Nashville, Tennessee.