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'Altered States' by Anita Brookner

A Solitary Life, Filled With Regrets

Sunday, March 02, 1997

By Sylvia Sachs


Altered States

By Anita Brookner

Random House


London solicitor Alan Sherwood, on his annual, solitary holiday in the little Swiss town of Vif, pauses during his afternoon walk to observe a woman waiting on the platform of the railroad station. From the back, the woman reminds Sherwood of the girl he had loved and lost more than 25 years earlier.

Although the woman on the platform is a stranger, Sherwood's first impression of her awakens long-suppressed memories in the way that biting into a madeleine inspired Marcel Proust to write "Remembrances of Things Past."

Brookner is no Proust - for one thing, shes writes a lot less - but she has a similar ability to delve into the minds of the characters in her novels and to illuminate their actions or, in most cases, their lack of actions.

A true Brookner protagonist, Sherwood ruminates in stately prose that is a pleasure to read for the author's elegant style. Her novels are often compared to Jane Austen's for their literary quality, but they lack the humor and satirical touches of the Austen works.

Sherwood's solitary life at 55 might have been predicted earlier. Even as a young man, he had been drawn to a conservative lifestyle, choosing to be an attorney like his father and grandfather before him. He tended to be extra-attentive to his widowed mother and to be comfortable in set patterns of behavior.

When, in his late 20s, Sherwood fell obsessively in love with Sarah Miller, it was totally out of character. Sarah was beautiful but impetuous, elusive and amoral. For a short time, the two had episodes of passionate lovemaking (not described) but their attitudes about sex and marriage always were opposite.

Sherwood wanted commitment; Sarah didn't know the meaning of the word. She made dates with him and was not at home when he arrived. She refused to explain her actions, and he became so disturbed by her appearances and disappearances that he began stalking her (in a quiet, nonviolent way). Finally, Sarah left London and Sherwood's life for good, but not his memory.

An unfortunate marriage followed this episode for Sherwood, and when it ended disastrously, his retreat into a comfortable bachelorhood began. It's all perfectly understandable and logical after reading "Altered States." But the reader does close the book wishing Sherwood had not given up on life so easily.

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