I read my first Barbara Pym novel, and I didn’t love it. I liked it, I just didn’t love it, and that was a bit disappointing. I’ve heard so many great things about her work that I was ready to have my socks knocked off, but they were still firmly in place on my feet when I reached the last page. I think my reaction had very little to do with Pym’s writing and more to do with the book I picked to start out with- not Jane and Prudence or No Fond Return of Love, both of which have been sitting on my To Read list for a while, but Less Than Angels, a novel that I knew nothing about but that happened to be the only Pym book my library had in stock.
Less Than Angels centers around a group of anthropologists and anthropology students, as well as their families and significant others, in 1950’s England. We watch the foibles of various characters as they navigate the events, small and large, that occupy siginificant portions of their lives: jockeying for grant money for anthropological field work; breaking off one romantic relationship in favor of another; keeping tabs on eccentric neighbors. The spotlight of the book focuses on a triangle composed of Tom, the dashing, seemingly brilliant anthropologist who is slogging through his thesis after returning from Africa, Catherine, the slightly older, passionately literary woman he lives with, and Deirdre, the nineteen-year-old anthropology student who pulls him away from Catherine. These three are only slightly in the leading roles, though. Pym constantly shifts around among a huge cast of supporting characters, offering a microscopic look at a segment of society that spends their time placing other societies under a microscope. I think it was ultimately this focus on such a large group of characters that hindered my connection with the novel. It felt clear to me that Pym appreciates and likes her characters, flaws and all, and some in particular, like Catherine, came across as especially sympathetic and affecting. However, the constant motion among all of their viewpoints left me feeling a little more detached than I would have liked, and actually made parts of the novel feel like a slow read to get through.
One aspect of the novel that I did really enjoy was Pym's wit and sense of humor. I've read some descriptions of Pym that liken her to a Jane Austen of her time and I can absolutely see where that's coming from. She uses just the right touch in infusing the novel with subtle humor and seems to have a keen eye for the funny aspects of relatable, everyday people and situations. It's a very different type of humor than something like the madcap, wacky situations of a Wodehouse novel, for instance. This, along with the high praise I've heard for some of her other books, that has me excited to give more of Pym's work a try.