Cover Collection: Excellent Women

Excellent Women Collection

1. VMC Designer Collection  // 2. Penguin Books // 3. Plume // 4. Virago Modern Classics //

5. Penguin Books // 6. Pan Books

In honor of Barbara Pym Reading Week this month’s cover collection is of Excellent Women, Pym’s most famous and beloved novel. I own the Plume edition and it is my favorite of these covers. I love the simple vibrancy of its pattern. My second favorite is no. 4. I know a lot of people dislike the VMC covers, but I think they are bright and beautiful. No. 6 on the other hand…gross. Which of these covers do you prefer?

It’s been really wonderful this week to read the numerous Pym posts around the blogosphere. To see one of my favorite authors receive attention, admiration and respect is truly exciting and gives me hope that her books will be read for many years to come.

Here is a list of the Pym books I’ve posted about in the past:

Excellent Women

A Glass of Blessings

Jane and Prudence

Less Than Angels

No Fond Return of Love

Some Tame Gazelle

An Unsuitable Attachment

I plan to read the rest of her novels by the end of the year. What Pym will you read next?

Have a fantastic weekend!

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Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

Quartet in Autumn

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

For Barbara Pym Reading Week I decided to read the novel that is also the Library Thing Virago group Barbara Pym book for June.  It is the first Pym novel that I bought around 4 or so years ago when I only knew her name from the blogging world, but didn’t know much about her. I’m glad I snatched this one up because I really like the Plume editions of her books and they are hard to find these days.

Quartet in Autumn was published in 1977 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize that year, which doesn’t surprise me because it is horribly depressing. This story about aging and loneliness and missed connections unsettled me. Letty, Marcia, Norman and Edwin are co-workers in an office and are all near retirement age and all live alone. Their main human interaction is every day at the office with each other (though Edwin is very involved with the church). Marcia, Norman and Edwin are somewhat prickly, but Letty is kind and tactful – she is most like the traditional Pym character I’ve grown accustomed to.

Halfway through the novel Letty and Marcia retire. As Letty struggles to find meaning in her life, Marcia exhibits increasingly erratic and bizarre behavior that the others ignore or explain away. She’s the retired woman who becomes a hoarder, stops caring about her appearance and spurns all social interaction especially with the young social worker who regularly checks in on her. As the months pass by Letty continues to adjust to her retirement while Marcia slips silently into her own hazy reality.

Pym admirably addresses many themes of aging and retirement in Quartet in Autumn. From loss of identity to financial woes to loneliness to the decline of mental and physical health, Pym covers the issues that concern the retired and elderly among every generation. I respected her portrayal of these characters and their very real challenges, but I did not enjoy the book. It is incredibly sad and touched a nerve I wasn’t aware was so raw for me. This novel did not offer the familiar escape that Pym’s novels usually do, though I do think it is wise and beautiful.

How is Barbara Pym Reading Week going for you?

You can visit the hosts of BP Reading Week at My Porch and Fig and Thistle.

Less Than Angels + My Brother Michael

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Less Than Angels by Barbara Pym –Less Than Angels is the Librarything Virago Group’s Barbara Pym Centenary book for April and my first Pym of the year. I tried to read this sometime last year and didn’t get on with it, but this time I really loved it. The plot centers around a group of anthropology students, professors and their friends and families and their relationships and struggles to make connections with each other. The humor in this novel is particularly striking – I think it is the funniest of Pym’s novels I’ve read so far. The young female characters are really interesting, not as likeable as Wilmet Forsyth or Mildred Lathbury, but intelligent, imaginative and eccentric in a good way, especially Catherine. I liked the ensemble aspect of the novel and the focus on many different characters, all of them richly drawn. I’ve read that some readers don’t like the ending, and I admit it did seem incongruous with the rest of the plot, but Pym is so good at mixing the funny and the serious that it makes both qualities stand out and enhances the humanity of her stories. I’m not sure where I would place this among the other Pym novels I’ve read – probably nearish the top, but not over Excellent Women or A Glass of Blessings.

My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart – This is one of the three Stewart’s set in Greece (The Moonspinners and This Rough Magic are the other two) and it is her ode to the country she loved and where she felt at home.  This love shines through My Brother Michael and makes Greece seem like a magical place despite the murder and mayhem the main character encounters. The book starts with Camilla Haven taking a chance. She takes a hired car that doesn’t belong to her from Athens to Delphi to prove to herself that she is adventurous and spontaneous. When she gets to Delphi she tries to find the person who did hire the car and meets Simon, a British school master who is in the area to discover the truth behind his brother Michael’s death during the war. As Camilla and Simon delve into the mystery, they encounter a dangerous plot that threatens their lives and the fate of some majestic ancient ruins. The descriptions of the Delphi area are stunning – the typical Stewart appreciation for nature and antiquities really works in this book. There is also a tiny supernatural feel to the plot that fits in with the mystical setting. I didn’t like the main male character as well as I have some of her other heroes, but that is my only quibble. My Brother Michael is another great novel by Stewart and makes me even more excited for Mary Stewart Reading Week in September.

 

I really liked these thoughts on yesterday’s tragedy. I pray for the people who were injured in Boston and for them to be healed, physically and emotionally.

Mini Thoughts on Recent Reads

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An Unsuitable Attachment by Barbara Pym – The sixth Barbara Pym I read in 2012 centers on a group of  unattached characters who all loosely connect through church or work. Ianthe Broom is a librarian in her late thirties who moves into a North London neighborhood and becomes entangled in the lives of the vicar and his somewhat snobbish wife. She piques the interest of her fellow parishioner, Rupert, and also starts a flirtation with her new, younger co-worker. Pym’s usual sly humor and realistic characters are definitely in evidence here and the loneliness of being an unmarried, older woman is painfully portrayed. Many of the characters, as is also typical, let me down and disappointed me, but this is a theme of Pym’s work – how do we carry on and find fulfillment when so many around us don’t live up to our expectations? I wouldn’t say this was one of my favorite Pym’s, but I liked many elements, especially the trip that the main characters take together to Rome. I’m going to take a break now from Pym until April when I’ll join in with the Librarything Virago group in reading Less Than Angels.

 Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan – I’ve liked a lot of McEwan’s novels, well maybe just a few, but enough to try anything that he writes. Sweet Tooth is the story of Serena, a young Cambridge-educated beauty, who is recruited by MI5 in the early 1970’s. She starts out as a sort of secretary until she is tasked with luring a promising writer to spread the message of the conservative establishment in his novels. The narrative is very compelling, very tense, but there is something just underneath the words that doesn’t feel kosher. I sensed that a major revelation was coming, and boy, was I right. I generally don’t like ‘clever’ writing – McEwan does it better than most, but I still, overall, was unimpressed with this novel. The only great thing about it was Serena’s descriptions of the books she reads and her love of literature.

The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett – I’ve owned this book for quite a while and am glad I finally read it. It is a strange mixture of a romantic fairy tale and a sensation novel, but I enjoyed the strange journey. The first half of the novel focuses on the sad life of Emily Fox-Seton, a poor and innocent companion to the rich and connected. She supports herself by running errands for several different ladies. One summer she’s invited to the country home of Lady Maria Bayne where she meets Lord Walderhurst, a highly sought after widower. It is an unexpected path to marriage for Emily. The second half finds her adjusting to life as Lady Walderhurst and fending off the evil schemes of her husband’s heir. This is where the book faltered for me, yet I stuck with it so I could see if she prevailed. I lost my liking for Emily in the second half because she just seemed so dunderheaded! However, it is an interesting little book and holds many charms for those who like old-fashioned yet unsentimental stories.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis – Oprah’s newest 2.0 book club pick is about the family of Hattie Shepherd. Hattie grows up in Georgia in the ’20’s and moves to Philadelphia as a teen to get away from the extreme prejudice against blacks in the South. She marries young and has many children, raising them in poverty and unhappiness. Each chapter of the novel focuses on a different child and tells the story of their family through tiny slices of their lives. A couple of the earlier chapters, about her sons Franklin and Six, were absolutely compelling and I wanted to stay with them and discover what was in store for them later in their lives. But just when you are starting to settle in with a character Mathis switches gears and takes you to another time and place. It was very unsettling and distracting. This novel is also completely joyless. Each and every character is a miserable wretch with little hope. I came away impressed with the skill of her writing, but depressed and sad for her characters.

So, that’s what I’ve been up to! I have several more books to write about – I’ll do another round-up post next week and then try to get back on track with blogging in February. I’m reading so many good things!

How have you been?

No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym

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No Fond Return of Love is another enjoyable Pym novel, but has elements that were slightly surprising to me after having previously read four of her more conventional novels. It was published in 1961 and has the feel and flavor of that era – I think Pym was really trying to ‘modernize’ her characters and plots to align with the new attitudes emerging during this time period.

The main character is another single, capable, respectable woman named Dulcie Mainwaring. She is an indexer for academic authors and as the novel opens she is attending an indexing conference where she meets Aylwin Forbes, a charming and handsome author, who she immediately becomes obsessed with. She has a habit of observing and researching various people she becomes interested in – these days I think we would probably call it stalking, but it is pretty harmless here. She finds out where Aylwin lives, where his brother preaches and even where his estranged wife resides. At the conference she also forms an interesting relationship with Viola Dace, another indexer who is prickly and odd, to say the least. Viola somehow ends up moving in with Dulcie and Dulcie’s teenage niece whom Forbes becomes attracted to. The various ins and outs of all of their love lives collide and lead to some humorous situations that also leave the reader a tiny bit sad.

One of the main differences of this novel to the other Pym’s I’ve read is that Dulcie is not a churchgoer. I have to admit I was slightly put out when I realized this because I love reading about the clergy and life surrounding the church so much. Fairly or not, I knew that this wasn’t going to be at the top of my Pym favorites list due to that. I also found the writing in No Fond Return of Love to be clunkier than in her other novels and the characters were less engaging. My favorite part of the book was when Dulcie meets Rodney and Wilmet Forsyth, the main characters in A Glass of Blessings, at a museum. Unfortunately, though, it only pointed out to me how wonderful her characters can be and how the characters in No Fond Return of Love fall short of her best.

Of the six Pym novels I’ve read this year, No Fond Return of Love is my least favorite. It just didn’t dazzle me like the others have.

Have you been disappointed by any of your favorite author’s books?

A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym

Wilmet Forsyth is a contentedly comfortable, youngish married woman who lives with her very nice husband, Rodney, and her energetic mother-in-law in the suburbs of London. She attends church and shops, but doesn’t really have much else to occupy her time. In essence, she is bored. So, when her best friend’s handsome, suave and mysterious brother, Piers Longridge, enters her life she sees him as a chance to bring some excitement and novelty into her life. Piers is as opposite to Rodney as is possible – he’s unreliable, prickly, can’t hold down a respectable job and admires Wilmet’s beauty and sense of style in a way that Rodney hasn’t for years. She develops an innocent infatuation with him and, though she knows it’s slightly foolish, she spends hours dreaming of ways she can see him again. But Piers isn’t the man she thought he was and she realizes that “there was no reason why my own life should not be a glass of blessings too. Perhaps it always had been without my realizing it.”

Pym’s typical understated humor sustains this charming story and it totally melted my heart. I love Wilmet – she’s smart and honest and good, though she doesn’t believe that about herself. I like her almost as much as I like Mildred Lathbury from Excellent Women. I also love the fascinating mixture of vicars, elderly spinsters, eccentric churchwardens, and other great characters that inhabit her novels. They bring color and vibrancy to all of her books.

These lovely novels are not naive, but they do have an admirable innocence that suits my reading tastes. Out of the four Pym’s I’ve now read I believe that this is my second favorite, after Excellent Women. Have you read Barbara Pym yet? If not, what are you waiting for?

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym

The third Barbara Pym I chose to read this year is Some Tame Gazelle. I’ve seen a few bloggers claim this as their second favorite Pym, after Excellent Women of course, but I liked Jane and Prudence better. However, this novel does have its strong points and is another quietly charming and droll little Pym that is very enjoyable and thought provoking.

Some Tame Gazelle takes place in recognizable Pym territory – a small English village centered around the church. Belinda and Harriet are two spinster sisters who live together next door to the vicarage. Belinda has always been in love with the Archdeacon and Harriet has a “thing” for curates. Though she has many admirers and marriage proposals Harriet prefers to dote on the young curates who serve in the village to the point of becoming possessive of them. The plot ambles along describing the comings and goings in the village, the surprising couplings of some of the villagers, Belinda’s quiet devotion to the Archdeacon and Harriet’s more unrestrained passion for her curates.

As always, Pym is funny and her characters are outstanding, but I think this is an unsettling novel. It  has an underlying sadness that I did not feel from the other two Pym’s I’ve read. Belinda is a lovely person, but her constant devotion to a man who is a narcissistic jerk made her almost too pathetic to like. Her sister’s preference for curates over having a real relationship frustrated me. Is Pym trying to convey that fantasy relationships are better than actual ones? That it is easier to love someone you know will not love you back rather than accept a flawed and complex person to have a partnership with? After all, her male characters are not ones I would want to marry.

Barbara Pym’s novels seem like frothy, humorous confections that you wouldn’t think deserved a second thought. But I have given them much thought after reading each of the three I’ve finished so far. Her novels constantly challenge the idea of womanhood, wifehood and what it really means to be a single woman in a marriage-based society.

I am so glad that I started reading Barbara Pym. Her novels are deeply satisfying on many levels. I think that A Glass of Blessings will be my next one. Have you tried her yet?