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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

What I like so much about Barbara Pym’s writing is that she manages to take the lives of ordinary, rather dowdy characters, and make them compelling and interesting. Nothing much seems to happen in her novels, but always the characters stand out distinctly as sentient individuals, unique in their circumstances, tendencies, and feelings. Even though the characters show their selfishness or cowardice, they are never repulsive. Pym’s gentle hand leads the reader toward tolerance and empathy rather than censure. As in Excellent Women and Jane and Prudence, the prose is fresh and forthright, unaffected and delightfully ironic.

This book is a cross-sectional view of the lives of Letty, Marcia, Norman, and Edwin, four older people who work together. Their jobs are not very important or interesting, and they have developed fairly typical office relationships, marked by routine and reserve. When Letty and Marcia retire at the same time, the office relationships are fractured in an uncomfortable way. While each feels a sense of interest in the well-being of the others, no one knows how to easily continue their acquaintances without awkwardness. Marcia’s dubious grip on health and sanity begins to wane; she begins acting as if she didn’t know the other three. Letty, a spinster with no family, is disappointed to find that her plans to retire quietly in the country have been disrupted, and she is left in the lurch with no permanent place to live and no real friends.

There is a good deal of hopelessness that wafts across the pages of the book, but the book overall is not hopeless. All of these people are solitary creatures who often fail to make meaningful connections with those around them. Letty’s life in particular is often tinged with sadness. Yet she does not wallow in her isolation or become depressed, rather, she is firm in her practical approach to each new event. Her renewed, tentative friendship with Edwin and Norman at the end of the book is simultaneously tender and unsentimental.

Title:Quartet in Autumn
Author:Barbara Pym
Date published:1977
Number of pages:218


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