A flame rekin­dled

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - BOOKS - By Joan Frank Joan Frank’s new novel is “All the News I Need,” win­ner of the 2016 Ju­niper Prize for Fic­tion. Email: books@sfchron­i­cle.com.

One of the great­est joys of en­ter­ing a new book oc­curs when we no­tice — straight­away if we’re lucky — that its voice gives steady plea­sure. Re­lieved, in­trigued, we think: I’m in — like fall­ing hap­pily into step along­side some­one we’ve just met, be­cause their con­ver­sa­tion feels provoca­tive and promis­ing.

“Pages for Her,” Berke­ley au­thor Sylvia Brown­rigg’s deeply thought­ful, ab­sorb­ing fifth novel, gives ex­actly this plea­sure. It opens upon au­thor and mother Flan­nery Jansen com­par­ing the Bay Area au­tumn’s “sib­ling ri­valry be­tween fog and sun” with that of her col­lege years in New Eng­land: “A ge­og­ra­phy she as­so­ci­ated with the open­ing of her mind and body, and the much phi­los­o­phized prob­lem be­tween the two ... where broad old elms and maples burst into color ... [promis­ing] the harsh but stim­u­lat­ing win­ter to come.”

And we’re in. “Pages for Her” is a se­quel — 20 years on, in its char­ac­ters’ lives — to “Pages for You” (2001), which made a sig­nif­i­cant splash as a kind of erotic bil­dungsro­man, track­ing then-18-year-old Flan­nery’s sex­ual (and in­tel­lec­tual) awak­en­ing in an in­tense af­fair with her then-teach­ing as­sis­tant, the sharply beau­ti­ful, im­pe­ri­ous Anne Ar­den.

Read­ers will be glad to know that it’s not strictly nec­es­sary to read “Pages for You” first, since Brown­rigg has ef­fi­ciently built that novel’s essence into this se­quel. In fact, read­ing “You” af­ter “Her” (which I did) pro­vides a fas­ci­nat­ing treat, al­low­ing us to travel back in time and eaves­drop on its char­ac­ters’ younger selves.

Flan­nery, now about 38, lives in a lus­cious-sound­ing, ren­o­vated house in the Up­per Haight with her adorable, preschool-age daugh­ter Willa, and her ebul­lient, abra­sive hus­band Charles, an icon­o­clas­tic and much-sought in­stal­la­tion artist. They live well; Flan­nery teaches part time, adores her daugh­ter, and has found ways to tol­er­ate the ex­plo­sive, dom­i­neer­ing Charles (“half wal­rus, half ge­nius”). But moth­er­ing and wife-ing threaten to erase a part of her­self she’d once felt el­e­men­tal: the writer. “That Flan­nery had au­thored two books was of less im­port ... than the fact that at the age of three Willa had liked to eat olives and mush­rooms.” With dis­use, in­ter­nal con­fi­dence has waned. “Had Flan­nery ever writ­ten, ac­tu­ally? Had there been any point to it, if she had?”

Like some of lit­er­a­ture’s most de­li­cious sto­ries, “Pages for Her” commences with the ar­rival of a let­ter: an in­vi­ta­tion from her old univer­sity to take part in a writ­ers’ con­fer­ence. Its list of par­tic­i­pants men­tions a Pro­fes­sor Anne Ar­den. “Her Anne.” Brown­rigg grace­fully pours in mul­ti­ple back­sto­ries: Flan­nery’s prior im­pas­sioned, doomed af­fair with Anne, fol­lowed by gyp­sy­ing with a new girl­friend (on which Flan­nery has based a suc­cess­ful novel); then, lat­terly, be­ing drawn into the in­sa­tiable vor­tex of Charles. Flan­nery mulls the se­quence: “Bi­sex­u­al­ity ... a sim­ple, ubiq­ui­tous, un­der­spo­ken truth about the hu­man heart — al­ways sounded like a science project, and not the prize-win­ning kind. It con­fused peo­ple. To de­scribe your­self that way made you seem shifty and in­de­ci­sive.”

None­the­less, it’s Charles she’s (un­easily) set­tled with when the in­vite ar­rives. “Flan­nery ad­mired his cer­tainty ... his abil­ity to or­ga­nize the world around him ... She had al­ways re­sponded to peo­ple, men or women, who had clar­ity and edge ... the abil­ity to be def­i­nite, some­thing she of­ten lacked.” “Pages for Her” is filled with such rich con­sid­er­a­tions — of mean­ing, di­rec­tion, com­par­a­tive ways of be­ing — in rest­less, sen­su­ous prose.

When Flan­nery learns, to her baf­fle­ment, that Anne’s long­time part­ner, the bril­liant pro­fes­sor Jasper El­liott, now lives in Paris “with his wife and two sons,” she grasps that some­thing’s off. “There were never go­ing to be chil­dren. Not for Anne . ... If there were sons, Flan­nery knew, then Jasper El­liott’s wife could not be Anne.”

Of course, Flan­nery will head for that con­fer­ence. But be­fore we’re al­lowed to glimpse what hap­pens there, “Pages for Her” segues neatly to Anne’s story, in Anne’s words — re­turn­ing to­ward its close to Flan­nery, to whom the novel ul­ti­mately be­longs.

Brown­rigg has set her­self a stiff chal­lenge, which is to fully in­habit the minds, hearts and voices of two sea­soned, gifted, but ut­terly dis­tinct women: one a self-ques­tion­ing nov­el­ist, the other an ad­mired, author­i­ta­tive-yet-vul­ner­a­ble, semi-dis­lo­cated aca­demic. That mis­sion is ac­com­plished com­pellingly. We’re glad to come to know these women, and to be taught by what hap­pens be­tween them. Read­ing (or reread­ing) “Pages for You,” as a kind of coda, makes it even bet­ter.

Claire Lewis

Sylvia Brown­rigg

Pages for Her By Sylvia Brown­rigg (Coun­ter­point; 375 pages; $26)

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