At the Hairdresser's by Anita Brookner. Penguin Special, 2011.
"Penguin Shorts and Penguin Specials are designed to fill a gap. They are short, they are original and affordable, and they are written by some of today's best and most exciting writers. And they are available only in digital form."
I loves me some Penguin Shorts and I'm not talking about clothing. One complaint: there aren't enough of them available yet, though there are many more options than the last time I complained.
They've added more in the series but lots of them are of little interest to this lover of fiction and nonfiction within my purview of interests. Too many are about obscure historical battles of the "who really cares?" variety. There's one called How to Set Up a Free School. Wot? Think that's of general interest, do you?
You see my dilemma.
But I did enjoy Helen Dunmore's Protection, reviewed here. It wasn't a phenomenal read but was certainly a great choice for a mild bout of insomnia. Nights like last night, when I was up 'til after 3:00 (due to my questionable decision to spend all evening sucking down DietPepsi like a lapsed Mormon on a binge), I had to resort to my ultimate soporific: Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, a novel with so many characters I need to take a course in English history to have half a chance understanding who's who and what's what.
Brookner's At the Hairdresser's, however, was a lovely short piece, if a bit of a heart-ripper. The story centers on 80-something divorcee Elizabeth Warner, who's jaded and world-weary, tired of living alone and having to care for herself. Even short errands for groceries, having her hair done or visiting the bank have become tasks she dreads, partly because she's tired of getting through it all alone and partly because she'd just rather be at home.
''My brief marriage taught me one invaluable but unwelcome lesson: that we are all alone, that no reciprocity is to be sought between people formed by different outlooks, and not only outlooks but different environments, both mental and physical. My disappointment persists to this day, the only difference being that I no longer search for the impossible.'
She has no friends, no close acquaintances, having not kept up with the two "friends" she'd had as a young woman (both of whom married and stayed so, while she was the only one to divorce), so is left rather bereft until one day, leaving the hairdresser's, a car service takes her home, since it's raining and she's forgotten her umbrella. The young man who chauffeurs her is very handsome, and, better yet, deferential, giving every appearance of truly caring about her and her safety.
"I knew perfectly well that I was paying for his company, as I had never in my life done before, but there was more to it than that. He was some sort of safeguard, one that might become necessary. I did not put any words to this. I had no need to. It is always later than you think."
She begins using the service more often, despite the fact it's a luxury, because it gives her such a good, warm feeling she feels she deserves at her age, after so long spent living alone. Chris, the young driver, feels like the son she never had - or grandson, perhaps. The turning point comes when one of the friends she'd lost track of comes to visit while the young man is in her home, sitting down for a cup of coffee. And, as it's a short, you'll have to read it yourself to learn the resolution, which I found surprisingly uplifting for so melancholy a tale.
Truly a lovely little read.