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Review: Quartet in Autumn, by Barbara Pym


Pages: 218
Original date of publication: 1977
My copy: 1977 (Perennial)
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: Philly Book Trader, July 2010

Quartet in Autumn centers around four retirement-aged office workers in London: Edwin, Norman, Letty, and Marcia. Edwin, a widower, is a church hopper; Norman, struggles with his anger; Letty’s an eccentric spinster whose childhood friend is set to marry a much younger clergyman; and Marcia, a survivor of a mastectomy. As the story progresses, Letty and Marcia do retire from their jobs (“something vaguely to do with filing”), an occurrence that brings the characters together more than they realize.

You might think it’s a depressing novel, but it’s bittersweet in a way. The characters are stuck in a kind of limbo; stuck in the past and remembering how things used to be, but still faced with the decisions they have to make about the future. So it’s interesting to see how each one copes with change in their lives. Pym’s novels always contain the same types of characters: office workers, churchgoers, spinsters, etc. But she manages at the same time to make her characters unique, describing them with the kinds of details that sum them up perfectly (Marcia is the type of person who allows the dust ball of a dead cat to remain on her bed).

Part of the book is based on personal experience; Barbara Pym wrote this after recovering from a mastectomy herself. So it’s interesting to kind of get in her mind and read her musings about aging and all that it entails. As the women retire, it seems as though their figurative vision improves and that they can see themselves and their situation with just a bit more objectivity than they ever could before. And then men change, too, especially when a major even happens towards the end of the book that changes the whole tone of the novel (and it’s very sudden, too; you get the feeling that Pym was very uncomfortable with the subject). I don’t think I enjoyed this quite as much as I could have (and there were other Pym novels that I’ve enjoyed more, but this one is certainly good.

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