Barbara Pym wrote about ordinary people without “self-pity or despair or romanticism, but with realistic firmness and even humor,” the poet Philip Larkin said. That’s partly why her fiction remains so appealing 29 years after her death: Next to all the recent novels about freaks and vampires and aliens, her men and women look radically normal.
“I should have liked the kind of life where one ate food flavored with garlic, but it was not to be,” a woman says in Jane and Prudence (Moyer Bell, 222 pp., $12.95, paperback), the story of two Oxford graduates whose lives have diverged. In this novel and others, Pym’s characters often show a similar matter-of-factness about the limits of their lives, a refreshing contrast to the desperate striving found in so much contemporary fiction.
In Jane and Prudence, Jane Cleveland, a clergyman’s wife, believes she has found the ideal mate for her friend, Prudence Bates, who has overinvested emotionally in her married boss. The plot centers on whether her matchmaking will work. But the pleasures of the novel have as much to do with Pym’s shrewd observations on human nature as with suspense about the outcome. Noticing the attention Prudence squanders on her boss, Jane reflects:
“Oh, but it was splendid the things women were doing for men all the time … Making them feel, perhaps sometimes by no more than a casual glance, that they were loved and admired and desired when they were worthy of none of those things — enabling them to preen themselves and puff out their plumage like birds and bask in the sunshine of love, real or imagined, it doesn’t matter which.”
That “real or imagined, it doesn’t matter which” is the depth charge in the sentence, and it’s typical of Pym. Her novels are so calm thoughtful that they are often called “good books for bad days.” Amid the current torrent of bad days, couldn’t we all use more of those?
This is the last in a series of daily posts this week on some of my favorite books. The other posts dealt with Now All We Need Is a Title (Monday), Middlemarch (Tuesday), Greater Expectations (Wednesday), and To Kill a Mockingbird (Thursday).
Tomorrow: A review of the new memoir, Knucklehead, by Jon Scieszka, an author beloved by many 9-to-12-year-old boys. Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear on this site on Saturday.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.