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Making Things Better: A Novel Hardcover – January 7, 2003

4.0 out of 5 stars 23 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Making things better has been Julius Herz's lifelong responsibility. He is yet another character in Brookner's sepia photograph album of dutiful sons and daughters trapped by familial duties into stoic existences. Like many of her protagonists, Julius is an outsider whose assimilated Jewish parents settled in London to escape the Nazis and never really fit in. His older brother Freddy's nervous breakdown, which ended his incipient career as a concert pianist, hurled their parents into bottomless grief, and firmly placed Julius under obligation to minister to the needs of all three. Now they are all dead. At 73, retired from an undemanding and unfulfilling job and amicably divorced, Julius faces existential questions with a sense of panic. He's desperate to find a purpose for the rest of his life, to create some companionship and perhaps even intimacy, and to put an end to his lonely interior exile. Brookner's gentle exploration of Julius's emotional dilemma is pursued with exquisite precision and empathy. In her novels, fate is cruel and hope of happiness a chimera, yet her characters are so fully realized that one feels the beat of life in their veins and longs for them to yield to their stifled urge for freedom. In Julius's case, the resurgence of sexual desire and an unexpected letter from the cousin he has loved since their youth in Berlin provide insights into what he belatedly recognizes as "the fallacious enterprise of making things better." While he grasps at a last chance at happiness, the narrative becomes a meditation on the longing for love, its risks and dangers, and how its absence makes life itself null and void. If Brookner treads a small territory again and again, there is no sense of dej… vu or of staleness. She has the facility to make each of her extended character studies (this is her 21st novel) ring with psychological truth.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

In her twenty-first novel, Brookner presents yet another exquisitely rendered portrait of a deep-thinking loner well on in years who is granted startling insights into the undercurrents that have shaped his staid life. Julius Herz has exemplified obedience, uncomplainingly sacrificing even the most modest desires to meet the needs of his inept and unhappy parents and strange older brother. The family fled Germany for London once being Jewish became a liability, and somehow they never recovered from the shock of their exile, a fate seemingly avoided by Julius' glamorous aunt and her sexy and petulant daughter, Fanny, the great unrequited love of Julius' life. Now all alone after a brief marriage to a nurse, Julius struggles to maintain his dignity under the assault of age and utter solitude. Brookner is a master at depicting the stormy inner weather of an outwardly placid life, and she has conjured a munificent consciousness in Julius, a devotee of Freud who pays careful attention to his dreams and to his responses to everything from a painting by Delacroix of Jacob struggling with the angel to the "magnificent indifference of nature." As Julius mulls over his past and experiences frissons of desire when a beautiful young woman moves in downstairs, he comes to understand that he has been beguiled more by his fantasies then by his actual life, and his arduous and compelling journey of self-discovery becomes a conduit for profound reflections on what we owe others and on how we define ourselves. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 275 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1 edition (January 7, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375508880
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375508882
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 1.1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.9 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,962,729 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Charles Slovenski on January 13, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Reading a novel by Anita Brookner is as intense an experience as I've ever had. I buy each one as soon as it comes out and settle in to read it with a sense of adventure. Brookner is a firm narrator and an excellent dramatist. Despite this story of impending doom, there are sections full of lyricism, lightness and delight. There is much talk of Nyon, a small town outside of Geneva and, in fact, I finished this book after riding my bike on the hills above Nyon, looking down over what Brookner describes as the "penumbra" of lac Lèman.
This is the story of an elderly London man, Julius Herz, who is compelled by loneliness and circumstance to reflect on the finality of his remaining days. His body betrays and goads him incessantly: he suffers light but debilitating dizzy spells and loss of breath; he delights in repose on a bench in the park, appreciating the sun and the air as a man might who knows his days are numbered; he is physically attracted to his young female neighbor. Having spent his life taking care of his parents and brother, he is continually disturbed by the memory of having had his youthful proposal of marriage rejected by his cousin: a proposal made many years earlier at the Beau-Rivage Hotel in Nyon where the lady resided - in characteristic Brookner fashion - with her mother in a style so recherché that a dramatic mishap and heartache are inevitable. Now, under the duress of old age and near-infirment, she has reconsidered and contacted him. Julius prepares himself and his cousin for their new life through a series of intense and astounding letters. "The next big thing" takes over. The British edition is entitled THE NEXT BIG THING. I have wondered what the motivation is to change the American edition to MAKING THINGS BETTER.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book is an immensely insightful character study of seventyish Julius Herz, now living alone in London after outliving his parents and brother, all of whom were forced to leave Germany during the Nazi regime. Julius' life has been one of duty, obedience, and propriety, his happiness and fulfillment secondary to aiding his family. His exile status is really a metaphor for his minimalist life.

Now, Julius' days consist of just staying busy: visiting little shops and museums, walking twice a day, sitting in parks, etc with only the briefest of personal interactions and then returning to his small flat located above a retail store. But a new renter in a downstairs room, a perky young financial advisor, upsets this mundane life. He begins to seriously question the validity of assumptions that he has made his entire life, and ponders whether he can recapture some of what has been lost. In addition, his German cousin Fanny, who has nonchalantly ignored his infatuation throughout the years, has contacted him with entreaties for help. Should he take a chance on trying to restore their unrequited relationship, or is this utter fantasy?

The book is a sobering look at aging and thoughts on paths taken versus what might have been. The author in her usual precise, exemplary language provides an amazingly sensitive examination of matters that undoubtedly go through the minds of many as they grow older. The answers are not simple.
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Format: Hardcover
I read the British edition of this novel with a more appropriate title (as other reviewers have noted) and was transfixed. I've read almost all of her novels and rank this with her best, up there with Dolly (Original title in the UK: A Family Romance) and Family and Friends. Hotel du Lac (which won the Booker) is one of her weaker novels.
Brookner's style can take some getting used to -- she often presents her stories with a minimum of dialogue -- and she is certainly not the writer if you're looking for escapist fluff or happy endings. Herz is a memorable character and she delves into his psyche with laser-like precision. I especially enjoyed the depiction of Herz' relationship with his doctor, who pooh-poohs
Herz' outmoded Freudian ideas.
This novel is a good place to start for anyone new to Brookner.
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Format: Hardcover
One of the most intensely engaging reads I have yet experienced, once I got into the book despite early misgivings. Thank the fates I did not abandon in haste! What a gigantically talented writer I have just discovered. Even though I have not lived a life nearly as socially barren as that of Julius, somehow I was drawn into his plight, able to spiritually relate to his every introspection, and to his noble embracement of the diminishing prospects of aging, perhaps because I, too, am far from young anymore. The ending totally surprised and stunned me, almost to tears. This author probes the depths of loneliness alongside the dangerous yet redemptive power of personal illusion. That there is humor in her prose I must say totally escaped me. I can't ever recall quite feeling such deep affinity or love for a character. The humble accepting soul of Julius is a magnificent beacon, the creation of an author in full command of her craft. Embarrassed to admit, I had not known of Anita. Brookner, but chanced upon a number of her books browsing the shelves at our local library. I will be back to visit her again.
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