The story begins with the visit to an uncle who is ailing in Belgium. Jane the narrator of this story is just a little girl but one with who is super sensitive. Having grown up in a very closed circle of just her mother and father who seemed to need no other at all, even Jane (feeling excluded at times) has a distaste not knowing really why for her Aunt Dolly.
The main character Dolly is intense and superficial, seemingly close to those around her but always with an eye to the main chance and judges people solely out of what she can get out of them. She cultivates Henrietta (Jane's mother) playing on her simplicity almost naivety to get a monthly stipend and continues to do so with Jane after her mother's death.
The book for me was strange - Dolly was the main character it is true but at the same time so many others - Jane, Henrietta, Miss Lawlor the housekeeper, and Hugo in turns become very important to the story and become at that stage of the book a leading character while Dolly recedes into the background. However, like a bad penny she always pops up again leaving a sense of uneasiness behind. You know when she does come in that an unhappy scene is about to played about you - Dolly cannot help this. Her character is so flawed that she does not show well.
Jane on the other hand seems so resigned to everything that happens around her - apathy at its height almost that you want to shake her. You want to ask her whether at eighteen she does not want to do anything with some fervor. Whether she could let everyone make decisions for her, walk over her and she just seems to fade into the background as it were. This is what makes Dolly look so powerful and intriguing.
The book was a good read, beautifully written at all times but not one which I liked!!! I sound contradictory and I know it but there is no other way to put it. This was my first read of Anita Brookner - it certainly would not be my last.