Sunday, August 3, 2008

Quartet in Autumn, by Barbara Pym--a review


One of the things I like the best about Barbara Pym's writing is that it is unflinching in its portrayal of ordinary people. And Quartet in Autumn is one of her most unsentimental books, about four English office workers who face aging in different ways. Edwin, Letty, Marcia and Norman have little in common except that they have worked in the same office for many years.

One expects, and hopes, that these four people, who have no spouses or close family, will forge a bond in their loneliness, but Pym never gives us anything so easy. No, the bond they feel is almost against their will. They are each eccentric and difficult in their own way, and resist connections with each other. Letty is a spinster who doesn't know why life seems to have passed her by. Marcia is an anti-social eccentric, whose quirks and paranoia are becoming more pronounced since her mastectomy. Edwin is a widower obsessed with church-going. And Norman is a "strange little man" with a sarcastic sense of humor and more than a touch of misanthropy.

In typical Pym fashion, these four characters dance around each other, unable to commit to truly knowing one another. They know each other's habits and eccentricities, but they don't really know each other. And when one of them goes into a decline, the other three notice, and try to move into action, but ultimately can do little to help.

This may not be an uplifting book, but it is certainly sharply funny, observant, sad and true. I always enjoy Pym's clear-eyed observations about her fellow humans--while she shows her characters with warts and all, she does not judge them. They are real people, worthy of her respect. As usual, Pym has worked her magic with humor and realism and created another wonderful portrait in miniature.

10 comments:

Robin said...

It's been a long time since I read anything by Pym, and I've never read this one. Your review is wonderful and makes me want to read it soon! Thanks.

Holly said...

Hey,
have you seen this?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rbx3qnKKC0Q

Dorothy W. said...

This book sounds so good! I'm looking forward to reading more Pym.

jenclair said...

I guess I'm going to have to quit saying that I intend to read Pym and just go ahead and do it!

Gentle Reader said...

robin--this is definitely a bittersweet read, but good!

holly--I have now. Sounds gimmicky!

dorothy--I just mooched another of Pym's books, Less Than Angels, so I guess I'm on a Pym roll :)

jenclair--She's like Penelope Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Taylor, that sort of muted, English storytelling, mostly centered around parish life, and very character-driven. I happen to love that sort of thing, so I'm a fan! Hope you enjoy her :)

Table Talk said...

This is one of my favourite Pym books and you've reminded me just how long it is since I read anything by her. I need to go and investigate what I've yet to read and move her to the top of the pile.

Gentle Reader said...

table talk--I'm glad I've reminded you of Pym, she's one of my old favorites! I also read your review of Netherland, which I really enjoyed, and commented there. Also enjoying your blog, and adding it to my blogroll :)

melanie said...

haven't read any Pym since last year, but i'm going to grab this! thanks.

Gentle Reader said...

melanie--hope you like it! Let me know :)

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