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I enjoy a good mystery novel. So it was with pleasurable anticipation that I sat down with Fraud. The title certainly fit the genre, and indeed the first sentence alerts us to a disappearance -- a woman missing for four months. From that point on, however, the only mystery is why this is thought to be a mystery at all.

Told in flashback from an omniscient point of view (which mysteries rarely are), the novel takes us inside the minds of a small cast of characters, all with some connection to Anna Durrant, the missing woman. The conventionof the disappearance works on one level because all the characters, including Anna, have disappeared inside stereotypes and are mere shells of human beings.

Anna herself plays the role of dutiful daughter to an ailing mother, hereby raising the only legitimate question in the book: How much of one's life must be sacrificed for a parent? This question confronts two other daughters besides Anna; somehow, two sons are able to sidestep the dilemma.

Although Brookner raises the question of filial responsibility, she proffers no resolution, only cliche-ridden models. Anna becomes a cipher in her mother's shadow; her friend in France marries in middle age over her father's objection, but compromises by having her husband move into her father's home; Vera Marsh's daugther practices deception; and Vera's son, incapable of taking care of anyone, lets his mother "mother" him. Dr. Halliday was away at medical school during his mother's illness.

Typical of these characters who escape into stock roles and dreary lives is Mrs. Marsh, a former magistrate, who now obsesses over whose key will turn the lock in her darkened flat and find her dead. This from a woman who drives herself back and forth to her daughter's home in the country, and who nurses her son through a five-day convalescence. Hardly a woman at death's door.

The only person who has a clue as to what she wants in life is the minor character, Peggy Duncan, Mrs. Marsh's housekeeper. Mrs. Duncan and her husband plan to retire soon to their own little home on the Isle of Wight, and she has taken this second job to be able to furnish it more comfortably. (Go for it, Mrs. D.) To the rest of the characters I wanted to say, "Get a life!"

These shallow characters amble through a very thin plot. Mind you, this is a mystery without a detective or even a crime. Most novels have a sequence of events which at some point take on additional meaning and lead the reader to some insight or theme, some way of looking at life, or experiencing the human condition. Brookner, however, dispenses with plot and zooms in on the pettiness of her characters, yet because she employs an omniscient narrator, we are denied even the enticing possibility of an unreliable narrator.

Nor does she allow her metaphors to do their work unassisted. A respected art historian, Brookner alludes occasionally to paintings (a much appreciated departure from the soap operaish test), but here again she leaves nothing to the imagination, not trusting her readers to understand how Titian's "Sacred and Profane Love" underscores Halliday's predicament in his choice of one wife instead of another.

Furthermore, for a novel that is all voice-over, interior monologue or limited dialogue, the prose leaves something to be desired. A young Halliday at one point muses that the world is a far more complicated place than he supposed it to be. Later, Anna, reflecting on her unrequited love for the doctor, has a profound revelation: In the middle of King's Road, she knew for a fact that she could have made him happy.

If this is not enough, consider this exchange between Vera Marsh's daughter and Anna:

"Oh, Anna, what a fraud you are."

"But there are many kinds of fraud, not all of them criminal. I rather think I have stopped being one, a fraud, I mean. Fraud was what was perpetuated on me by the expectations of others."

If the only mystery is why anyone would think this is a mystery, then the only fraud is that perpetrated on unsuspecting readers.

Oh, and as for the disappearance: Read the book, if you will, and be surprised. Or not.
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Author:Bromberg, Judith
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 28, 1993
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