Monday, December 31, 2012

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

A little like Rocky Napier's effect on Mildred Lathbury, I was completely charmed by this lovely little book.  Mildred is the narrator and one of the Excellent Women of the title - i.e. she's a 30 something unmarried lady in late 1940's London, daughter of a clergyman who fills her time being helpful to her church and really anyone else who calls upon her. This description makes it sound insipid and twee but it is nothing of the sort.

Mildred is a wry and knowing narrator with a sly wit and a good heart.  She's a delight to follow along with as she navigates, with a great deal of insight, the everyday mundanities of her life. When her life is unexpectedly injected with drama by the arrival of a young married couple in the flat below hers she finds herself feeling a little less content with her quiet lot in life. 

Despite the rather mundane nature of the book's plot, I found that it sucked me in and I finished it in two days.  Barbara Pym moves things along never dwelling to long on one scene or another so that it feels like more is happening than it is.  She has such a light writing style that you hardly feel you are reading anything of substance but the insights she rolls out so effortlessly, about society, about relationships, about people, reveal an incredible understanding of human nature.  It is hard to really explain how lovely her writing is without providing a sample but at the same time there is so little fat in the narrative it is hard to find passages that aren't intertwined with the story around them.  Here are a few that I marked:

"'More to Drink' said Rockingham with rather forced gaiety.... I began to see how people could need drink to cover up embarrassments, and I remembered many sticky church functions which might have been improved if somebody had happened to open a bottle of wine. But people like us had to rely on the tea-urn and I felt that some credit was due to us for doing as well as we did on that harmless stimulant."

"I could see very well what she meant, for unmarried women with no ties could very well become unwanted.  I should feel it even more than Winifred, for who was there to really grieve for me when I was gone? Dora, the Malorys, one or two people in my old village, might be sorry, but I was not really first in anybody's life. I could so very easily be replaced...."

"I pulled my self and told myself to stop these ridiculous thoughts,wondering why it is that we can never stop trying to analyse the motives of people who have no personal interest in us, in the vain hope of finding that perhaps they may have just a little after all."

Looking at these quotes I see they don't really do her humor justice.  She is really very funny and I laughed out loud more than a few times. Overall it was a joy and delight to read. 

As a side note Barbara Pym was on my list of "Authors I have never read but would like to" that I put together in 2012.  Most of the names on the list are ones you'd recognize such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen King, Cormac McCarthy, Iris Murdoch, but Barbara Pym may not be.  I think I added her after reading a forum post on Goodreads about formerly well known authors that have fallen out of favor.  It os very sad that this is the case because she is really a delight.  Excellent Women, I believe is her most well spoken of novel but I hope to explore some more of her writing.

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