Quartet in Autumn, Barbara Pym
When I found a copy of this at Half Price Books last week, I decided it would be my first choice for the Barbara Pym Reading Week. As I've mentioned before, I read some of Pym's books many years ago. I enjoyed them, but they made no lasting impression on me, and I can't even remember now which ones I read. Once I started blogging, I found such enthusiastic readers that I knew I had to try her books again. I began with Excellent Women, which left me eager to read more.
Quartet in Autumn was not what I expected in a "Barbara Pym novel." I had no idea that any of her books included the phrase "F*ck off," even spoken by a passing unnamed character. That made me realize that though I've read so little of her work, I've unconsciously type-cast her books: quietly ironic social comedies of spinsters, curates, tea, frustrated romances. Actually, this book has all of those, but in a very different kind of story. It is set in London in the 1970s, with immigrants swelling the population amid economic uncertainties. The quartet of the title are two men, Norman and Edwin, and two women, Marcia and Letty. All four are in their sixties, coming up on retirement after working together in an office for years. We learn almost nothing about their work, what they do during office hours, other than talk. Though circumspect, never sharing too much information, they know each other's situations. Yet though each is single, and on his or her own (despite Edwin's married daughter and grandchildren), they don't meet outside of the office, even at lunch. All go their own way, and the story follows them each in turn. Looking back, it seems to me that we learn almost as little about Norman's life outside the office as his work inside, other than his constant worry about inflation and his fondness for butter beans. Edwin's life is the Church, and he follows the liturgical year through the High Church parishes that he visits in turn. Marcia has recently had a serious operation, and it is clear that she is not completely well, physically or mentally. Her neighbors have noticed some odd behavior, though Janice, the social worker who visits regularly, never seems to notice that Marcia simply stonewalls her (Janice's inexperience is matched only by her self-complacency).
Of the four, the two women are the closest to retirement. While Marcia owns her small house, Letty plans to share her old friend Marjorie's cottage in the country. But when Marjorie's situation changes, Letty loses that comfortable future and must make new plans. She has already lost one home, when a Nigeran immigrant buys the house where she has rented a room for many years. Though Letty has some concerns about living among Africans and immigrants, which her office-mates share, it is her new landlord's congregation, meeting in his flat and singing exuberant hymns, which finally drives her to move.
Barbara Pym does something wonderful with these quiet lives. I agree with the cover blurb from The Financial Times about her "Extraordinarily delicate irony, fine writing, understated humour, and some bleak perceptions about the human condition." I am still thinking about her people, wondering what happened to them, how their stories turned out. Anbolyn has also written about Quartet in Autumn, and now I'm off to read her review, and see what other people are reading for the week - and maybe find my next book.