47-48. Two by Pym

“That day the four of them went to the library, though at different times.”

Quartet in Autumn, Barbara Pym

“A confused impression of English tourists shuffling round a church in Ravenna, peering at mosaics, came Catherine Oliphant as she sat brooding over her pot of tea.”

Less Than Angels, Barbara Pym 

I read one book by Barbara Pym, and liked it so much I decided to read a second right away (this seems to be a bit of a habit of mine). As I’ve said before, Pym is Angela Thirkell or Dodie Smith written with acid instead of ink.  She writes devastating portraits of real people just living their lives.  Not much happens in the books, but they nonetheless propell you forward on the reality of the characters.  There are those who find Pym funny. I see that, but I also find her books to be, in some ways, achingly sad in their capture of the banality of ordinary life.  But there is something about them that makes me want to keep reading, and to read more Pym (something beyond my obsession with reading every social novel about 20th Century Britain, that is).

Quartet in Autumn was my favorite of the two.  It’s about four elderly people who work together in an unspecified (but clearly unnecessary) Government office, and what happens to them as they start to retire.  It’s about aging and loneliness, and about how little people really understand each other.  And, thus, it does have an undercurrent of melancholy - but it’s not really a tragic book.  The characters are too set in their ways, too sure of themselves to make it sad - this isn’t The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. It is comedic in a way, but more than that, I liked that it was a story of a kind you don’t see too often, about people who are often forgotten.  The Times called on of her books “Sharp, funny and sad” - I think that’s a good sense of what you’ve got here. 

Less than Angels was less interesting - but only because Quartet in Autumn grabbed me so. I still liked it and read every word, but I just was less drawn in in the life of a suburban girl, Deidre, who is at university and falls in love with a handsome anthropologist.  You don’t really root for the romance (Tom, the anthropologist, is already living with a lovely girl names Catherine), particularly because Deidre is sort of a drip, but the characters around the story - the students and professors at the university, Deidre’s family, Catherine - are delightful and make the story.  And the end is surprisingly satisfying (she says, nastily*).  I recommend Pym.

*read the story and find out why

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017