Train station platforms are right up there with gas-rings, the sound of a brass bell announcing a visitor, slices of seed cake, and the word 'teapot' to draw me to a story. While those items certainly have definite 'cosy' appeal, Altered States is anything but.
'I am not even sure that my memory of her is exact, for I frequently winced at her cruelty until I learned to laugh at it.'
So begins the telling of Alan's past obsession with Sarah Miller, a distant relation through a marriage. In her early twenties, Sarah is described as vain, feckless, and a stubborn brat. Arguably, she is a young woman who marches to her own tune and refuses to be pinned down by a man. Once Alan has set his sites on this young woman with her fabulous Pre-Raphaelite red hair and a wake filled with Guerlain all sense of rationale disappears. He rings her phone but there's never an answer, he even resorts to walking past her flat and looking through the letterbox late in the evening.
Fruitless attempts to have anything more than a lone sexual encounter with Sarah result in Alan offering marriage to another woman. Angela is every bit as needy as Sarah is elusive. Alan has now jumped from the frying pan into the fire. While Brookner is incredibly detail-oriented in her examination of the human psyche there are two incidents that take place with such a swift set change it made me gasp.
Alan's mother, Alice, lives in a well-appointed flat and enjoys the company of Aubrey Fairweather, a gentleman from the same building. Alan describes him as delicate 'but probably made of teak'. Alice Sherwood, a genteel Englishwoman, presented Alan with his current home, a flat on Wigmore Street, as a twenty-first birthday present. He suspects the gift is something of a bribe; payment for his company as his mother becomes more dependent in her advancing years. Being attentive is a character trait that seems inherent in Alan but it also ventures into something less admirable...
'Even at my young age I liked women to be cherished. I liked to think of them as needing a modicum of protection, encouragement. I liked them to be modest, grateful for flattery, expert at soliciting kindness.'