Book Club / Hotel Du Lac | Book Club

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The TOAST Book Club is published on the last Friday of every month. This review has been written by Tessa Shaw, co-founder of Ink@84 – an independent bookshop just up the road from our Highbury head office. Though it exists in a purely digital sphere we hope that you will add your own opinions and thoughts below.*

When I said I was reviewing Hotel du Lac to someone in the bookshop today they said: ‘20 years too late!’ It’s a funny thing, returning to a book I read years ago. To be honest it means much more to me now than it did then. I remember it won the Booker prize in 1984, that it received a lot of stick for beating J G Ballard and for being ‘a slight novel’, not worthy of the accolade. Malcolm Bradbury even declared it ‘parochial’.

Coming to it again, it has haunted me. Conversations I have had with people are taking on a Hotel du Lac sort of weight. This morning I was listening to a programme on the radio about Jane Austen and her life as a spinster with a diminishing income, destined to observe and write and I thought, of course, this is the essence of this book: the lot of a woman. How could people accuse it of being a slight novel with such a theme?

That said, the plot itself is simple. Edith, a romantic novelist, disgraced in some way, finds herself exiled to a stolid, respectable Swiss hotel on the lake in order to ‘get over things’.

She is, at first, the melancholy heroine, soaking up the gloomy, dull lustre of the faded, slightly snooty hotel. But her inquiring mind soon leads her into the lives of the other guests who she portrays with a delightful wit. We meet the glamorous Mrs Pusey and her unmarried (not quite as pretty) daughter, the thoroughly disgruntled Monica with her small dog, the elderly abandoned Madame de Boneuil, and the suitor Mr Neville. They all become bit players, each lifting Edith in some way from her solipsism.

The hotel is a familiar motif for a novelist to inhabit but Brookner cleverly uses the space to delve into her protagonist’s interior world. Edith, at once realist and romantic, sees herself as ‘the mild looking, slightly bony woman in a long cardigan, distant, inoffensive, quite nice eyes, rather large hands and feet’. It becomes clear through the novel that she is struggling with who she is, or at least who she thinks she is, and that she has been sent away until ‘everyone decides that I am myself again’.

It is when Edith is alone in her room that she writes letters (that are never sent) to David, the man she loves, the man with whom we learn she had her disgraced affair.

But Edith’s real sin, it seems, is that she has failed to follow the life her friends have mapped out for her. While they settle for a man and marriage she remains an unmarried, single woman in her 30’s.

It is this struggle – this search to understand love and what this elusive word means – that is at the fore of this uneventful, yet beautifully observed, novel. How can she live with integrity without the sustenance of domestic companionship?

Hotel du Lac might be slight but it is potent and subversive. A book that needs to be read… even 20 years on.

Anita Brookner died last year. She never married.

hoteldulac

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31 Comments

  • I too remember the dismissiveness that accompanied Hotel du Lac’s publication and Booker win. Rereading it recently, I am struck by how powerfully we are drawn into the experience of Edith and her fellow guests and the narrow options presented. That is a real writer’s skill, to give so much in do few words, just as Penelope Fitzgerald achieved. Thank you for bringing attention back to this novel.

  • I have reread this book every year since I first bought a copy in the 90’s, so nice to know other people love it as much as I do. I also have it on cd so I listen in the car, even my husband has come to enjoy it, he who never reads a novel.

  • This review led my to buy and read this book. I loved the timelessness and quiet tragedy of it, the sense of being an invisible observer. I found Edith’s stifled feelings of loss and longing resonant and affecting. An excellent book that I have spent more time contemplating than I did reading. If you enjoyed this Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday is a similarly satisfying read.

    • Thank you for your comment, Sioned. We were equally swept up in the subtlety of the prose and the profundity of Edith’s emotions. We are also great admirers of Mothering Sunday, which we think is Swift’s best work to date.

  • Melanie Martin

    Gosh seeing this today, made me think of years and years ago, when I read this book. Thanks for reminding me.

  • I, too, read this book in the ’80s and enjoyed it then as now. I do think that it is so well written with the characters and the story line slowly developing – who would have guessed Edith’s final decision?
    One other aspect, I found that the book had been dedicated to Rosamond Lehmann (another favourite of mine) Anita was born around the same time as Rosamond wrote “Dusty Answer”. So the next book for me to re-read is Dusty Answer! I do like it when these coincidences happen.

  • Sounds intriguing!!!!!

  • Hotel du Lac reminds me of the sea, because during my stays with my Grandmother; a copy of it would always be on the little french iron hallway table; there as I passed to go out, there, as I came back from a swim or a wander with her dog. Later, my Greatgrandmother seemed to be permanently switched onto the talking book version! Think it’s time I had a read…

  • Benedicte Newland

    I read this in my twenties and I think I found it beautifully written but slightly dull. Re-reading it now in my fifties I find it incredibly poignant and lyrical, very pleased to have been prompted to read it again.

  • Angela O'Connor

    This is a book to come back to …uneventful as the reviewer has observed but still it draws you in with its beautiful prose. I read another Anita Brookner novel a few years ago (I have totally forgotten its title -one of the characters was called Imogen!) and like Hotel Du Lac even though I have forgotten its title I will not forget the characters .

  • Yes. This is a book to come back to. Just like The Wide Sargasso Sea, it’s one that you can grow with. I love it for the prose…so sharp… a little piece of genius which I like to read very slowly so nothing gets away. Great vintage cover on this edition. Lucky me…I received it as a gift.

  • I look forward to reading this book with such quirky characters. It’s on my shopping list!!

  • I enjoyed this review having read ‘Hotel Du Lac’ many years ago. I no longer have that copy of the novel so feel another Kindle purchase coming on!

  • Many years since I read this as a student .
    Simple but powerful storytelling with a quiet fluency

  • Jackie Batchelor

    Loved this when it was first published and now intend to recommend we reread it to my book group.

    • Thank you for your comment, Jackie. It’s the perfect novel for a book group – full of interesting topics to discuss and mull over…

  • This sounds like a good book, I look forward to reading it.

  • I remember reading this completely enchanting book when it was first published and I was young. Thank you for your review . I look forward to rereading it now when I am in another age and time in my life entirely.

  • I gave this book to my sister for Christmas all those years ago – now I shall read it too! (She enjoyed it)

  • Thank you for this review. It has fired me up to buy the book and reread it after all these years. For me it evoked a dreamy sense of reality and conjured up mental images of early morning summer mists on water. I loved it and was outraged at the criticism of her receiving what I thought was a much deserved Booker. If I recall correctly most of the irate voices were of the male variety.

    I am just off to the bookshop, all the very best
    Triona

  • VANESSA AUSTIN BADOOR

    The title is so familiar, but I’ve never got around to reading this book. I love plots centered around an enclosed community and will definitely be looking out for it. Thank you!

  • I always have to know where this book is on the ( rather chaotic ) book shelf. I read it regularly. It cannot be described as slight!

  • I remember borrowing this book to read about 20 years ago and the man who lent me it said something to the effect that “…I think she writes good books but nothing ever happens in them.”
    I never agreed with that as Hotel du Lac made an impression on me then, although I couldn’t pinpoint why this was. Nevertheless, I continued to think about it from time to time.
    I not only enjoyed Tessa Shaw’s review, I found it enlightening!

  • I too read the book 20 years ago and even the title evokes a real sense of sad romanticism. I can’t quite remember the detail but the title appeals enormously. I see a beautiful place with lots of almost interesting, semi beautiful people in it.
    I’m inspired to read the novel again and am wondering what effect it will have on me this time.

  • Really like the sound of Hotel du Lac and whilst an avid reader have never read any Anita Brookner – this will be my first, and one to cherish for my holiday reading!

  • Such an interesting question to ponder. What is it that defines us a person? Do we need to be in love to be content? I’m going to read it.

  • Thank you for this beautifully written review. It has inspired me to read the book again!

  • Thank you for that – I’ll give it a read

  • I too recently re read this lovely, underrated and understated novel, also after about a 20 year gap from first reading. I share your personal, sensitive and thoughtful views of it as being a novel worthy of re reading.
    It was whilst packing for a house move that I paused to examine the faded and dusty cover of this slim paperback. Kneeling, I turned it over, opening it curiously, and re read the first page. I couldn’t remember much about it but instinctively felt that I must have enjoyed it. I liked the title (seductive in its simplicity, and fabulously French in flavour!). It drew me in immediately and I set it aside to read again. This time round I savoured it. Indeed it is not a dramatic tale, but it draws one in with its quiet and languid atmosphere. It is intriguing and one wants to know more. It evokes an exquisite feel for time, place and personal human experience. It is like leaning over a wall or railing surrounding a beautiful lake and seeing a reflection with hidden depths! There is a heavy mist lying over the far side of the lake, a heat haze. It is a reverie!

  • I do have a copy of Hotel Du Lac, languishing somewhere in my book-shelves..Definitely time to dig it out for a re-read.

  • Adam Sandercock

    Always been a fan of novels by Anita Brookner. Very excited to give this a read!