Novels can be plot-driven, character-driven or idea-driven: it is generally accepted that serious "literary" fiction is mostly of the last two categories. In character-driven stories, rather than events, it is the development and analysis of human nature that takes front stage. The events are just a backdrop. Skillfully executed, they are sometimes more exciting than the wildest adventure story; however, when the execution falls flat (as in Undue Influence
by Anita Brookner), the result is a disaster.
Claire Pitt is a lonely young woman, living with her widowed mother. Her crippled father has passed away some time back. Claire is suffering from some kind of existential angst (at least, that is what her first person narrative indicates): she cannot form any lasting relationship with a member of the opposite sex, even though she hints that she has had adventures aplenty. Claire's only friend is Wiggy, an artist, who is happily in relationship with a married man - though even with her, Claire finds it difficult to unburden herself. She continuously fantasises about the lives of the people she meets, providing them with imaginary pasts, presents and futures. She is also adept at analysing the emotions of other people (according to her own yardstick, of course).
As the novel opens, we find Claire reeling under the death of her mother, the only human being who she could claim to be attached to. She suddenly realises that her sinecure job at a bookstore run by two old ladies is her only tenuous hold to life. As Claire desperately casts about for some kind of foothold on society, she meets attractive, middle-aged Martin Gibson who is married to an invalid. She is immediately attracted to him, and believes she has a chance at a life when Martin's wife passes away: all the more important to her, as the store is sold off and her job disappears. However, in this also, Claire is disappointed - making her realise that it is time to stop grasping at shadows and take charge of herself.
This could have been a great novel of manners. The characters are all well-drawn (even the dead St Collier, the father of Claire's employers, whose articles she is editing), the relationships complex and the language, superior. However, all the effort is wasted because of the meandering pace and the endless self-reflections of the singularly unlikeable protagonist. The author may have made Claire flawed to make her all the more human, but she ended up being such a whimpering, self-pitying dishrag that I wanted to poke her one on the nose! The excruciatingly slow pace of the novel also did not help. In the end, when the big "revelation" comes, it is something which would be clear to any discerning reader about halfway through the novel - still, Claire says, "this was one connection I failed to make". Shows what a jackass she is, IMO.
Avoid this one at all costs.