Digby and Mark are friends of Catherine's through Tom Mallow, who lives with her when he isn't in Africa. The story moves between Catherine, in her comfortable little flat "on the shabby side of Regent's Park," the students and staff at the centre, and Deirdre's family. She lives with her mother and her unmarried Aunt Rhoda, and her brother Malcolm. Their house is next door to a church, where the older women have become devout members of the rather High congregation. Like Catherine, both are keen observers of their neighbors, particularly Alaric Lydgate, who has just moved in next door. He too is an anthropologist, retired from the field, with boxes of notes that he has never managed to write up into articles. His sister Gertrude, herself an anthropologist, shares a flat with Esther Clovis and is often at the centre.
The first chapters introduce us to this large cast of characters, establishing their connections and relations. Then one morning Tom Mallow walks into the centre. He has returned after two years in Africa. Finding no one he knows at the centre, he introduces himself to Deirdre, takes her out for a drink, and is soon meeting her regularly. He invites her to a party at Catherine's flat, where she is shocked to learn that he lives with Catherine. But it doesn't stop her from meeting him. Eventually Catherine sees them together - at a restaurant across the street from her flat, where she often eats with Tom herself - and things come to a head. Tom however escapes much of the reaction by returning to Africa, leaving both Catherine and Deirdre to deal with his absence.
At the moment of crisis, after seeing Tom with Deirdre, Catherine thinks "I'm not one of those excellent women, who can just go home and eat a boiled egg and make a cup of tea and be very splendid..." But I thought she was a wonderful character, and I deeply wanted to smack Tom's face for treating her so badly. There is such life in her. I liked her determination to deal with the situation with Tom. She doesn't wallow, she just gets on with things. She is unconventional, not just in living with Tom outside marriage (which I found rather surprising in a novel from 1955). She asks questions, she is interested in people, and she often says whatever comes into her mind. She also seems to have a gift for friendship - and perhaps the need for it. To the astonishment of the Swans, she barges into Alaric Lydgate's life, and she even manages to work out a friendly relationship with Deirdre.
I also enjoyed the familiar Pymian elements to this story, particularly the squabbles among the anthropologists, competing for funds and recognition. Professor Mainwaring plumes himself on the grants that Minnie Foresight will provide to deserving students, but his pride is destined for a spectacular fall. He is a great trial to Esther Clovis, as she tries to manage the centre. Few people know why she left her previous position as secretary to a Learned Society.
...it had something to do with the making of tea. Not that the making of tea can ever really be regarded as a petty or trivial matter, and Miss Clovis did seem to have been seriously as fault. Hot water from the tap had been used, the kettle had not been quite boiling, the teapot had not been warmed . . . whatever the details, there had been words, during the course of which other things had come out, things of a darker nature. Voices had been raised and in the end Miss Clovis had felt bound to hand in her resignation.I am still wondering about those "things of a darker nature..." Perhaps she was skimming off the tea funds.
The front cover of my Plume edition of this book has a quote from the Chicago Tribune: "One of Pym's sleekest and funniest novels." I thought the words of the Kirkus Reviews on the back a better fit: "Ironic, shrewd, a bit sad...especially diverting." I did find this story rather sad, both in Catherine's situation, and in something that happens to another character - quite suddenly, and with no warning.
Since anthropologists play a major role in this book, I was not surprised to find references to Helena Napier and her husband (Rocky), and Everard Bone and his wife Mildred. Miss Clovis considers Mildred "a rather dull woman," which proves she isn't all that bright herself, but at least she admits that Mildred is "a great help to him in his work" out in the field. I will add this to my list of cross-over characters. I would quite like to meet Catherine in another story, or at least to find out where her story takes her.