Review: Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

hotel du lac book cover Hotel du Lac [1984] – ★★★★1/2 

From the window all that could be seen was a receding area of grey. It was to be supposed that beyond the grey garden, which seemed to sprout nothing but the stiffish leaves of some unfamiliar plant, lay the vast grey lake, spreading like an anaesthetic towards the invisible further shore, and beyond that, in imagination only, yet verified by the brochure, the peak of the Dent d’Oche, on which snow might already be slightly and silently falling” [Brookner, 1984: 7], so begins the short novel by Anita Brookner, who was the recipient of the Man Booker Prize in 1984. Clearly, after such an opening, one would expect a rich, highly-descriptive, beautifully-written observational novel of some insight, and this is exactly what the reader gets. Those who are after some fast-paced action in their books should look elsewhere because Hotel du Lac is a quietly powerful, almost reflective, character-driven novel at the heart of which is one embarrassingly unmarried female heroine Edith Hope, an idealistic writer, who abandons her London home for a holiday getaway to be spent in a respectable hotel-establishment in Switzerland. At the Hotel du Lac, Edith encounters a puzzling-to-her company until she finally meets Mr Neville, a gentleman who may finally help our hopeless heroine to gain esteem and respectability in their eyes of the society. 

Books on British people abroad deserve a genre of their own. From A Room with a View [1908], A Passage to India [1924] and The Painted Veil [1925], to These Foolish Things [2005], the tradition is certainly there, and there seems to be no end to tragedies, dramas or humour which may arise when there is a cultural clash or when British eccentricities and manners find themselves in foreign lands. One may just sit back and observe the situation unfolding, and there will surely be something to observe. I mean it in a very positive and admiring way. Hotel du Lac also attempts to follow that tradition, and deals with one theme which I particularly enjoy reading about – characters’ interaction in a closed setting. There is an element of cosiness to these types of novels, and the story is immediately interesting from a psychological point of view. Nearly all action in Hotel du Lac takes place in one single hotel, with a picturesque lake nearby, and the characters breathing in fresh alpine air and enjoying the last summer days in a truly atmospheric setting. The hotel itself is described as being “a stolid and dignified building, a house of repute, a traditional establishment, used to welcoming the prudent, the well-to-do, the retired, the self-effacing, the respected patrons of an earlier era of tourism” [Brookner, 1984: 13].

Soon after Edith settles into the hotel, she meets other guests there: Mme de Bonneuil, Monica, and wealthy Mrs Pusey and her daughter Jennifer. Edith, who feels an odd one out tries to merge into her new surroundings seamlessly, while also not forgetting what she allegedly came to the hotel for – to write her book. Rather than writing, Edith is distracted and her company is soon wanted by the high-spirited and domineering Mrs Pusey and her obedient daughter Jennifer. By observing women around her, Edith starts to self-assess and reminisce about her own life, trying to understand the societal rules and how her ideals may fit into the broader scheme of things. Brookner, who is an impressive writer, uses the language beautifully as some tasteful descriptions flow of the location, the characters, and their curious interactions. Edith is presented as the one who cannot interpret people, but she does a good job, especially when she contrasts herself with those around her. There is a line on Mrs Pusey and her daughter Jennifer: “behind their extreme pleasantness there lies something entrenched, non-negotiable, as if they can really take no one seriously but themselves. As if they feel sorry for anyone who is denied the possibility of being a Pusey” [Brookner, 1984: 109].

Sometimes it even seems that other characters exist solely for the purpose of Edith to start examining her own life choices and future intentions. As she plunges into “prolonged reminiscence” [Brookner, 1984: 135], missing one married London dandy David, to whom she is attached, she unexpectedly meets Mr Neville. This man is of “few words” [1984: 91], and he holds views on how to lead a life and achieve life goals which are completely opposite of Edith’s. Our heroine then starts to wonder if, through Mr Neville, her “subterranean” existence [1984: 92] may finally come to an end.

There is a clear message at the end of the book, but Hotel du Lac was still not a perfect book for me. Even I, who can appreciate quiet, introspective novels, where nothing really is going on, found Hotel du Lac a bit too dry and missing something big and exciting. Perhaps, the novel can even be described as too cerebral, lacking heart and emotion.

Hotel du Lac is a quiet, characters-driven novel with plenty of observations and dialogues. Its Switzerland setting makes this reading choice particularly attractive because the novel is full of Swiss-ambiance and hotel-cosiness. In other ways, one can say that Hotel du Lac is a quietly rebellious book. It definitely makes a point on the topic of women’s happiness in the society still governed by men, and on their dilemma of choosing to meet societal demands at the cost of their own inner happiness and staying true to themselves. All these points are presented in a rather subtle way, but the overall impression is no less powerful. The book does feel a bit underwhelming as a whole, but Brookner also rendered her story in such a beautiful language that there could be nothing but praise for this literary work. 

9 thoughts on “Review: Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

  1. I’ve always thought that Brookner is something of an acquired taste – and acknowledge that I have yet to acquire it. However, I did very much enjoy ‘Lewis Percy’, read for one of my book groups, so if you did feel like trying her again that might be one to consider. There was a very good BBC 2 televised version of Hotel du Lac. If you get a chance I would recommend giving that a viewing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks a lot for your recommendations. I will try to check out both “Lewis Percy” and the BBC adaptation.

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  2. It is interesting how even a “plotless” novel can feel full of emotion and even excitement. A novel I read earlier this month, Notes of a Crocodile, had no central storyline, but it was really engaging and well written. Sorry to hear that this one turned out to be a bit too dry, and hoping you have better luck with your next read!

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  3. That’s a very interesting thought about the number of books concerning Brits abroad. I guess there are loads from the period of the Empire so that explains the ones with Indian and African settings. But there are, as you point out, also lots where it’s an English person in Europe, and also America. I wonder why? Even the quintessentially English Bertie Wooster spends nearly as much time in New York as in London. I think as a nation we maybe have a tendency to think we’re a bit dull and ‘abroad’ is exotic. Plus it is a good way to examine “Britishness” by providing a contrast to other cultures, I suppose. Intriguing – thanks for the food for thought…

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    1. That is a topic that interests me a lot. I think you are right about the Empire connection (past-colony-related tradition), hence a similar trend for travel and exploration experienced by French people. Because of that many British people will find themselves abroad at any particular time, particularly in Egypt, the Caribbean Islands, etc. Agatha Christie books reflect that too.
      Also, some older books may just correspond to the trend of “The Grand Tour”, something which originated circa seventeenth century and that just means that it is fashionable for young British people to travel to Europe in particular “to complete” their all-around education. It is seen as “prestigious” in relation to other people and in some other circumstances too, I imagine. In that precise setting Forster’s “A Room with a View” was set.
      And then again the “exotic” setting in British novels is just too irresistible because it is desirable to get away from unpredictable and rainy weather and experience a different culture at the same time + chances are that “exotic” country already speaks English in some form or another.

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    1. Thanks! Since I liked “Hotel du Lac” I will try to read more Brookner books and will make sure that “Incidents in the Rue Laugier” is one of them, thanks for the suggestion!

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