AFTER ANITA BROOKNER'S brief experiment with an elderly man as the main character in last year's novel, The Next Big Thing, her trademark women are back at the centre here - and back with a vengeance. Brookner's twenty-second novel focuses on two: the narrator and her fiiend, both called Elizabeth, but with the latter's name having been shortened to Betsy when they started school together. In it Brookner explores a particular niche of women's experience: the emotional and marital dilemmas of 'the last virginal generation'. By this she means those who were born too late to enjoy the certainties of the 1950s, and 'too soon for the fieedoms currently claimed by women' - sexual permissiveness and the chance to forge an independent career. And when might that unlucky date be? The year 1948, if you're wondering.
The two women, though different enough and not even particularly close, shadow each other through life. Elizabeth is the more proper, cautious and guarded one, while Betsy is open and vulnerable, and socially less adept: 'through sheer incomprehension she would fail to administer the right platitudes'. After a lonely spell