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In her 25-year-old masterpiece Excellent Women (reissued, 1978) and her recent Quartet in Autumn (1978), Pym managed to invest ordinary, nearly pathetic English lives with an ironic dignity and offbeat charm. Here, however, though her economical narrative edge still slices marvelously, Pym's people are simply difficult to believe and impossible to like; and if one reads along with a certain mild fascination, one ends up with only a bit of pity and a slightly bad taste in the mouth. Perhaps part of the problem is that the characters here are of a better class than most of Pym's other frail heroes: class and taste axe certainly the Blanche-Dubois-esque preoccupations of handsomely mature Leonora Eyre--a worldly but prim unmarried lady of leisure who is in fact frozen at a schoolgirl stage of emotional and sexual development. We watch as she quickly develops an obsessive romantic/platonic attachment to dreamy young James--nephew and assistant of a London antique dealer whose attentions Leonora flirtatiously invites and then repels. (""Surely freedom from this sort of thing was among the compensations of advancing age and the sad decay of one's beauty; one really ought not to be having to fend people off any more."") When James, a fellow of flexibly nebulous sexuality, is revealed to have a chippy in the suburbs, Leonora displaces her and induces James to move into a gorgeous flat in her own smart house. But James' new lover, canny and smarmy American Ned, is more than a match for Leonora--and steals James completely away, saying, ""Life is cruel and we do terrible things to each other."" If these people were a bit less off or a bit more substantial, the novel might work as a parable of possessive love's destructiveness (the title echoes a Keats poem with that theme). But as it is, Pym gives us only a sad, rather superficial story of high-toned misfits, often enriched by elegantly apt phrasings or--like the scene in which Leonora repossesses furniture lent by James to his girlfriend--deliciously uncomfortable situations.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1979
Publisher: Dutton