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Novel details the fallout from an affair

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THE RULES OF ENGAGEMENT, by Anita Brookner, Random House, 273 pages, $23.95.

Anita Brookner writes interesting novels about dull lives. Her skill is phenomenal. No one can make a bigger deal out of nothing than she. No one can write about restraint and narrowness quite so satisfyingly.

To be fair, in Brookner's latest book, "The Rules of Engagement," there is actually a dramatic dilemma. A married woman has an affair with her husband's friend. Even after the husband dies, and the affair is broken off, the topic of betrayal continues to reverberate through her life.

The phrase "rules of engagement" refers to the code of conduct between lovers and also to the code between friends.

Initially, Brookner's main character, Elizabeth Wetherall, is more interested in female society than in mixed company. When she marries, she compares her life as a wife to her friend's life as a single woman. If marriage sets her apart, then the affair isolates her even further. Her friend has love affairs as well, and those affairs also separate the women from each other.

As Brookner describes it, there is valor in Wetherall's decision to do nothing as a widow and former adulterer. It's a choice. Says Wetherall, "My days would be entirely empty, entirely insignificant, giving me time to evaluate my life, and also to remove myself from the life I had already lived."

She didn't have to live an introspective life, of course. She could even move, start fresh in a new town. But Brookner makes inaction seem the best choice for an intelligent woman. Says Wetherall, "Though I longed for wider vistas and cleaner air, I could not see myself in the country or even in a small town. There were possibilities in my present situation, as the neighbours were keen to remind me. I could visit exhibitions, the theatre, without worrying how to get home late at night. I had done none of this, but the possibilities were there should I choose to take advantage of them. Or I could take up some sort of study, a degree course at Birkbeck, or lectures at the City Literary Institute. I was free to do all or any of these things, and though I might not the choice was mine. The memory of those fictitious evening classes which had been my alibi clouded my mental horizon and might affect any reality I could hope to embrace. This was dangerous territory; such subterfuge, though no longer necessary, was something that troubled me. I was marked for life, whatever my own wishes in the matter."

The action in Brookner's books is so understated and so subtle that she makes you believe that to write about an exciting life would be silly. Maybe even crass.

E-mail: susan@desnews.com