Posted in Book Reviews

Marie’s Reading: “Quartet in Autumn” by Barbara Pym

quartet in autumnLetty, Marcia, Edwin, and Norman are low-level clerks who share an office in a very drab London in the 1970’s.  They’re all retirement-age, all very private, and all lonely and a bit strange.  The story follows the four of them through scenes of their lives outside of the office, and then, in the end, a move toward perhaps becoming more than simply workmates.

Pym’s satire is the gentle kind, rather than the acid kind–there are pointed barbs about the way the lonely elderly are treated by society, and about how the England of the 1970’s seemed like an alien place to those “born in Malvern in 1914 of middle-class English parents.”  Yet there’s real affection for these people, no matter their quirks or problems.  Pym writes with a lot of compassion.

Letty, the one from Malvern, is a tidy woman intent on education.  Edwin loves church to the point of obsession (he reads all sorts of newsletters and goes to everyone’s services).  Norman has lots of lofty plans which never quite materialize, as he finds himself keeping company with a brother-in-law he doesn’t like.  The only really sad, tragic member of the quartet is Marcia–she quietly goes around the bend after a mastectomy.

The pace is brisk, and goes from scene to scene, character to character.  It’s a very character-centered story, the focus always on these rather downtrodden office mates.  But it’s not a sad book–none of the four are really sad.  They’ve carved out their own happiness and their own little victories out of what their world has given them.  And the story ends on a very hopeful note.

Give this one a try if you’re after a gentle read that’s still smart and pointed, and is populated with affectionately rendered, interesting (if a touch eccentric) characters.

–Marie

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