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Though never finished to the satisfaction of Pym, An Academic Question (so named by editor Hazel Holt, who combined two drafts to arrive at the present novel) has at least three distinctions: Written in the early 70's during Pym's ""silent"" period, it is the book she abandoned for her much deeper and more resonant Quartet in Autumn; it is her one attempt at something akin to mystery-writing; and it unleashes a storm of satiric barbs on academia. If it fizzles as a mystery (largely because of its aimless plot and uneven pacing), and if, ultimately, one is relieved that Pym put it aside to get on to weightier matters, its satire of the means and motives of petty academics nevertheless provides moments of bracing fun. Caroline Grimstone, wife of sociology professor Alan Grimstone and herself a Pymesque ""excellent woman,"" is one of the few inhabitants of a small West Country university town who sees provincial university life in its true color: Gray. Her endless rounds of clinking glasses at department cocktail parties, populated by wonderful Pym creations (spinster sisters, ""gray-looking sociologists,"" etc.) threaten to deaden her; so she casts about for suitable occupation and winds up reading in a nursing home to a blind missionary, Mr. Stillingfleet. As it turns out, her husband lusts after Stillingfleet's manuscript of Africans, which he convinces Caroline to purloin, thus allowing him to write an article refuting the theories of his academic nemesis, Crispin Maynard. Caroline regrets the theft almost immediately, not only because old Stillingfleet dies shortly afterwards, but because Alan has a fling with a young editor at the journal where his paper is published. There is, however, something so casually meaningless about Alan's liaison with editor Cressida that Caroline is able to forgive her husband. The controversy over Stillingfleet's manuscript that Alan's article ignites also proves meaningless--in fact, the ""academic question"" of the novel's title--when the manuscript bums in a fire started by demonstrating students. This is minor, but still intriguing Pym, studded with luminescent thumbnail characterizations and, on occasion, deliciously funny.

Pub Date: Sept. 4th, 1986
Publisher: Dutton