Excellent Women is the first book I’ve ever read by Barbara Pym. I’ve seen her recommended in dozens of places, referred to casually by my favorite authors and critics, and generally beloved all around, but I never picked up anything by her. She seemed to fall into a category of beloved women authors I haven’t tried: Joan Didion, Doris Lessing, Margaret Drabble. She wasn’t even on my TBR list. (And I’m not alone; it seems she was voted “the most underrated writer of the century” in 1977!) But my family is moving soon, and our books are packed, and I was browsing the library, and she took my fancy, so I picked a book off the shelf.
I am so glad I did. It’s hard to describe why Excellent Women is so entertaining; a summary of the plot sounds like the dullest kind of slice-of-lifery. Churchgoing spinster gets new neighbors, forms new acquaintance; vicar becomes engaged, then unengaged; Life Goes On. But this terrific novel catches you unawares with nostalgia, wit, finely-drawn irony, and a strong desire to know what happens next. Pym has a wonderful way of elbowing you in the ribs when you least expect it, so that you laugh out loud, or of making you examine more seriously the ways we do things.
This book sparkles, but it’s more serious than that. It’s full of acute observations and a wonderful ear for dialogue (inner as well as spoken.) It’s a genuine pleasure. The only reason I’m not sorry I didn’t pick up anything by Barbara Pym earlier is that now I have all her novels in front of me, to read at my leisure.