by Barbara Pym ‧ RELEASE DATE: Sept. 29, 1980
Pym's last novel--she died in January 1980--returns to the English-village/ Anglican-church ambience of her early, recently-resurrected successes (Excellent Women, A Glass of Blessings). . . as anthropologist Emma Howick, an un-pretty spinster nearing 40, spends a year or so in her professor mother's cottage in a wee hamlet near Oxford. And through the months of creakingly traditional small occasions--church flower-arranging, bus outings, teas, lunches, jumble sales--Emma meets a generally sad, very Pym-esque assortment of neighbors: minister-widower Tom, who lives for local history; his housekeeping spinster sister Daphne, who lives for her Greece vacations; old Dr. G., who prescribes buying a new hat for most ills; young Dr. Shrubsole and wife, who covet the spacious rectory; trendy bachelor restaurant-reviewer Adam, whose purchases of tight jeans are often unfortunate. True, some changes do occur as time goes by: illness, death, visits; Daphne moves out to live with a friend (diary-keeping Tom wonders: ""What was he to write about the events of this morning? 'My sister Daphne made a gooseberry tart and told me that she was going to live on the outskirts of Birmingham'? Could that possibly be of interest to readers of the next century?""); an old academic flame of Emma's moves into a nearby forest cottage and toys with her affections and her kitchen (she's forever carrying casseroles into the woods); Emma then finds herself drawn to the rector--""Would he, for example, be capable of cleaning her top windows, which was what she really needed?""--and ends up with rather unconvincing optimism, looking forward to ""a love affair which need not necessarily be an unhappy one."" But if Emma is an only half-sketched heroine, there's real, modest achievement here--in the accumulation of tiny, touching, ironic observations and reflections: the ways that lonely lives revolve around food (""the packet of savoury rice, the ever-useful fish fingers. . .""); a woman who's unnerved by winning a bottle of red wine in a lottery (""so dark and menacing""); a church florist who loses his faith after seeing those ""talks on the telly"" (a reverend ""wearing a green turtle-neck jumper--I ask you!""). With neither the smiling, sharp edges of the early work nor the perfectly controlled pathos of Quartet in Autumn (1978), this is minor Pym--really just a neutral-toned catchall of her acute angles on loneliness and the ravages of time-marching-on--but readers with the appropriate expectations will find it quietly exact, gently amusing, and (except for that dubious happy ending) genteel-ly heartbreaking.
Pub Date: Sept. 29, 1980
Page Count: -
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1980
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