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Review: Less Than Angels

Pages: 256
Original date of publication: 1955
My edition: 1982 (Perennial)
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: Philadelphia Book Trader August 2010

As a parallel to society as a whole, Barbara Pym tells the story of a group of anthropologists in London. Tom Mallow is an incredibly self-absorbed but brilliant anthropologist working on his thesis, and he has a convenient live-in arrangement with a magazine write named Catherine, who seems to be more of a friend, although it’s hinted that the two may have had a relationship in the past. Tom takes up with Deirdre, an earnest but naive anthropology student.

Barbara Pym worked with anthropologists for many years, so they are a recurring theme in many of her books. Anthropologists make cameo appearances in some of Pym’s other novels (such as Everard Bone from Excellent Women, who has a cameo appearance in this book; Emma from A Few Green Leaves; and Tom Mallow is an early version of Rupert Stonebird from An Unsuitable Attachment), but Less Than Angels is really the only one in which the actual study of anthropology plays a major role. I loved the comparison that Pym makes between the studies of this group of people and observations of human society as a whole. There are a few stock characters that Pym went to again and again; in this one, she uses the young-spinster stereotype (Catherine), the cad, clergymen, and the eccentric academic (plenty of those in Less Than Angels, to be sure).

I also love the connections she makes between each of her books through the use of recurring characters (therefore I think it’s best that you read Pym’s books in order of publications, because she really built upon each book as she wrote them). Undoubtedly, our favorite character is meant to be Catherine, whose wisdom and sensibility is a contrast to Deirdre’s youthful naïveté.; and I got the feeling that Pym was silently mocking tom behind his back. But it’s so subtle that you almost don’t notice it. Less Than Angels is one of my favorite books by an author already favored.


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