My first lukewarm Barbara Pym reading experience left me with the opposite reaction of what one might expect--I was dying to read another one of her novels. Specifically, I was dying to read the highly recommended Excellent Women in the hopes that it would be the Pym novel that would make me see what all the fuss was about. I'm happy to report that it was, it did, and it all around exceeded my expectations, possibly even joining the ranks of my favorite books of all time.
In Excellent Women we meet the wonderful Mildred Lathbury, an unmarried thirty-something woman living in a quiet corner of London. Although still young by today's standards, Mildred is resigned to a life of spinsterhood. At times she seems content with this path, busying herself with stereotypical activities like church jumble sales and reveling in the small pleasures of her daily routine. At other times, though, she seems to chafe against this role and experiences mild bouts of bitterness and depression over the way she feels herself to be taken for granted by society. Her feelings of discontent emerge even more upon the arrival her new downstairs neighbors, Helena and Rocky Napier, with whom she shares a bathroom. Helena is an anthropologist who refuses to cook or do housework, shows the bare minimum of neighborly courtesy toward Mildred, and has an overall air of blasé glamor about her. Rocky is a handsome and suave former Naval officer who has the talent of making anyone he talks to feel as though they're the mod witty and fascinating person in the world. He turns his charm on Mildred and she soon finds herself drawn into the Napiers' world--attending anthropology lectures, dining (and drinking) out, and making endless pots of tea as she listens to the details of their latest marriage crises. Mildred's involvement with the Napiers pushes her out of her comfort zone and she finds herself balancing her new world, and a tentative new friendship with aloof anthropologist Everard Bone, with her old obligations, like her long standing friendship with the local vicar, who's on the cusp of abandoning bachelorhood for marriage. Soon Mildred unexpectedly finds herself to be a part of two separate yet equally awkward love triangles. She also begins to feel overwhelmed with exhaustion from being drawn into the problems of everyone around her. As the plot moves along, we wonder, will Mildred be able to define the life she wants for herself, and live it according to her own terms? Or will she continue to be defined by the demands and expectations of others?
As I read this book, I couldn't stop thinking about what a nice change of pace it is from so many other novels. Some stories create an engaging world where interesting things happen, but rely on unrealistic or convoluted plot devices to do so. These can be very entertaining, but often have little in common with real life. Other times (and often more annoyingly), a story will be very realistic and gritty, but with just a vague plot that obliquely hints at a capital M meaning hiding behind mundane details. Excellent Women breaks both of these molds. It portrays a believable slice of a small world where the daily comings and goings of its inhabitants make for an extremely compelling plot and have a deeper meaning that most people can relate to. It's filled with the kind of humor that comes from seeing the little absurdities in everyday life. It's also filled with a bittersweet sense that comes when events and people fail to live up to the expectations. Pym herself probably says it best in the book when she writes, "after all, life was like that for most of us--the small unpleasantnesses rather than the great tragedies; the little useless longing rather than the great renunciations and dramatic love affairs or history or fiction".
All of this makes for a very cozy little book, the reading equivalent of a warm winter blanket. As soon as I finished it, I wanted to go back and reread it again, which is exactly what I indulged in a few days later when I was struck down with the flu. When I pulled it back off the shelf, I realized that I had unconsciously placed it next to the lovely Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith. This unintentional pairing made me realize that Glaciers is a modern novel that actually has a Pym-like quality to it, not necessarily in terms of Pym's humor or wit, but in its focus on the tiny quiet rituals that mark a day in the life of the main character. I highly, highly recommend reading both novels. And in the meantime, I'll be working on reading more of Pym's novels.
(P.S.- I generally prefer editions with "pretty" covers rather than covers that try to literally illustrate a scene from the book, but I came across this one and think that it perfectly captures Mildred and the Napiers.)