Tuesday, December 6, 2011

On "Quartet in Autumn" by Barbara Pym ****

This book came to me by way of a friend who insisted I read Barbara Pym. "Isn't that a bit too staid, English, and old-fashioned for me?" I asked. You'll love her my friend said. I promised I'd get around to her--as in, years from now. Hours later, he produced a book. "I knew you wouldn't read her unless I made it impossible for you to avoid her," he said, handing me a copy he'd purchased just for me. And that was the book I just finished reading.

Staid, old-fashioned, proper, English? Yes, all of these things could describe this novel by Pym. But also accomplished, in the best sense of the word. The novel tells the tale of four coworkers, all of them single, all of them on the verge of retirement. Their jobs are on the chopping block, but rather than fire them, the company has decided to keep them on until they retire, then get rid of the jobs. In the course of the book, two of the workers do retire, and we watch as these four older people deal with the attendant loneliness. The office, on some level, is most of what they have, and without that, without each other, there's little to fill the days.

The novel itself is told in intervening sections from varying points of view. Letty is a heavy-set woman who never married and whose plans to go live in the country with a friend upon retirement fall apart when the friend decides to marry instead. Marcia, a homeowner, is dealing with a mastectomy. Norman, like Letty, simply rents a room in a house; at lunch, he tours the library or the British Museum. Edwin fills his nights with church activities and the occasional drink. All of them are desperate on some level for companionship, except arguably Edwin, but all of them are unwilling to admit it. And so they dither away their days, wondering really what there will be to do after their jobs end and their days are wholly their own.

But Quartet in Autumn is not in the end a novel of despair. Amid this, Pym finds a way to suggest that the characters find new meaning to their lives, even as those lives hit their near close. What that meaning is, however, she doesn't give much clue to.

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