Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Dear blog friends,

Thanks so much for preaching your love of Barbara Pym. You’ve called her funny and witty. When I found a copy of Pym’s Excellent Women in a used bookstore, I thought it Fortune smiling down upon me. Thanks are showered upon you for those moments.

Knowing this book is about Mildred, the old “spinster” who is unmarried in her 30s, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to happen. A married couple move into her apartment house — the likely-unfaithful anthropologist wife and the charming, likely-unfaithful husband. Their lovers quarrels sweep Mildred into their lives. Mildred, the good church-going woman who is friends with her (single) clergyman and his sister.

Should she find love in an unexpected place? Or with the dashing neighbor man? Perhaps the clergyman who has sworn of marriage but may have missed Mildred’s excellency? Or should she remain alone, proving a single woman is not a burden to herself nor society?

You were right: Pym is funny. Mildred is the first-person narrator, and that helps because I got all of her hesitancy and nose-wrinkling. Mildred, who doesn’t drink often, has a moment of realization:

. . .how people could need drink to cover up embarrassments, and I remembered many sticky church functions which might have been improved if somebody had happened to open a bottle of wine. But people like us had to rely on the tea-urn and I felt that some credit was due to us for doing as well as we did on that harmless stimulant.

What is it that made you want to keep reading this novel, blog friends? For me, it was to see the scandalous snake-like characters get their comeuppance. Are they ousted or flee? Will things be made right? That’s one thing about this novel. It appears Pym takes a more realistic route than using fiction tropes. Perhaps that’s why she’s popular? You just never know what to expect. I wanted Mildred to come out on top, especially after she’s accused by pretty much everyone of being in love with every unattached man she’s spoken to. When she adamantly denies the accusations, she looks like she’s lying. Oh, Mildred. I could relate when I was in high school and college.

And that ending. I did not see it coming. Through much of the novel I was mad on Mildred’s behalf. Her brain sees problems, but her mouth doesn’t know how to say “no.” Is this what makes her an excellent woman? According to the other characters, yes. Reliable old Mildred. I was mad all the way to the end for Mildred, but I’m stuck on something: would she be happy with her own end? Is that what she wants for her life? Or is she going to have to have a “come to Jesus moment,” as my boss likes to say, about the direction things have taken?

It wasn’t what I expected, but I did happily read Excellent Women filled with anticipation. There are so many doors that could be opened in this slim text.

Sincerely,

Grab the Lapels

Excellent Women

The cover of my 1978 edition from Plume, an imprint of Penguin/Putnam

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50 comments

  1. Lovely review. I’m greatly looking forward to reading this book, but I want to buy a specific edition of it so I’m waiting until payday. Your review made me even more excited about it.

  2. Gosh, I am yet to read something from Barbara Pym – this book sounds hilariously funny and I will be looking more into it. Thank you!

    And I loved how you wrote your review – what a fun format. 😊

    • Thanks! So many if my bigger friends love Pym that I felt like I was talking more to then than writing a review anyway. I might check out her other work. I remember when I was reading Northanger Abbey there were many dry parts, but when she’s funny Austen’s humor is a lot like Pym’s.

  3. Yet another author I’ve never tried though, like you, I’ve seen her praised all over the blogosphere. Glad you enjoyed it… maybe one day I’ll pick up one of her books.

  4. I’ve not read this Pym but it’s gone on my list now. My favourite Pym is not one of her humorous tales though; its Quartet in Autumn which has four single people on the cusp of retirement. Pym’s abiity to get beneath their skin is tremendous

  5. I skimmed this quickly but I’m so very glad you enjoyed Pym. Isn’t she amazing? I realized on seeing your review that I started mine but didn’t finish it (post) so I’ll need to remedy that soon. I have some other books now by her that I plan to read in the future. 😊

    I’ve thought about doing some mini reviews for books not on my CC list.

  6. Okay, well, I am a Barbara Pym lover, but I’m not sure that would’ve urged you in her direction as we share some favourites but occasionally have very different responses to books too. Either way, I first discovered her in a women’s bookgroup in the mid-late ’90s, when someone nominated Quartet in Autumn and I was stunned to find a half shelf of her books in the local library (the hardcover editions of the cover you have in paperback, but they were slightly more square in hardcover, mostly delightfully double-palm-sized).

    And, oh, how I loved Quartet (but as BookerTalk has said, it is a very different kind of story, although just as observant and meticulous), so much that i went on to read about six of them, all so quickly and in such short order, that I called it my Great Pym Blur. Even now, I’ve not properly sorted which of them I read back then (as I have reread some, and recognized that they were familiar, but not all). There is also an Autobiography in Diaries and Letters (A Very Private Eye). I hope you enjoy another of hers too!

    • A Barbara Pym blur! I love that! I work very hard to not eat an author up because if that person is dead, I’ll run out of books really fast 😬 I’ve been reading Zora Neale Hurston and Jaimy Gordon slowly.

  7. I know that Laila @ Big Reading Life loves Pym (as attested to above), but she is the only person to ever recommend Pym’s writing to me. Specifically, Excellent Women. Knowing that I have a different perspective on literature from you both, I will keep this book on my TBR and make my own decision. I am intrigued by this review, however. I’ll come back and pester you once I’ve read this and have thoughts.

    Are there other Pym books on your TBR? If so, will you keep or remove them?

    • I found this Pym by chance in a used book store. While I liked the writing, I think her plots may not be quite what I want. It’s not bad, I just left the book feeling grumpy. This is another one I wish I would have kept to send to you. As of right now, I don’t have anymore Pym books that I own, and I’m really focusing on blasting through books in my house. I almost never go to the library except for some fat fiction, like Puddin’ or Dumplin’. When I’m done with my TBR-I-own, that will change.

      • I can just imagine you being grumpy aftering finishing a book. And, while I am sorry you left feeling grumpy, the image in my head is adorable. You’re probably a super cute grump. I’ll have to ask Nick about it. XD

        I’m so glad to hear you’re working on reading through the books you own. I am currently reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and it’s making me question why I have so many things. The chapter on books is giving me a bit of anxiety to read through every book I own STAT. We shall see what happens. O_o

        • I used to save everything because it was really suggested to me that if I let go of something, I wouldn’t have anything in the future to share about my past. Which is…weird. But have your parents ever pulled out things from when they were kids, or objects that represented special moments? You have to do that right away or you won’t have anything, but when you’re a kid you don’t know what to save. The turning point was when my great-grandmother got sick. She was moved from her home into my grandma’s home, and many things were let go of then. But then when she passed away, there was the one room she stayed in at my grandma’s house–and that room was SO FULL. In just a few months. And I watched as my grandma sorted through each piece or paper, each item, that her mother had saved and tried to figure out if it was worth keeping or not. That was tough. We have things, but people don’t know what those things mean to us. Therefore, I throw away everything that doesn’t mean something to me right then.

  8. I love Pym very much, having been introduced by her in my early teens by Mary, a sort of grandmother to the whole area, a lefty, feminist, fruit and veg sufficient home brewing misfit in our conservative and Conservative village (along with Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Comyns, etc). She is very very English and so we recognise this character – hell, to a certain extent, I’m this character, living a life that has a lot of service in it, though not religious, observing from the outside, etc.It’s all so instantly recognisable to us. I guess it’s like the Garrison Keillor world of the Lutheran church in a way, very recognisable to people in the US I’d imagine, or parts of it. I love all her books though Quartet in Autumn, which I read very much last, is pretty depressing, though still funny. I hope you read some more and that her world isn’t so far from yours that you can’t find your way in.

    • As a person, I understood Mildred and could relate to her in ways. I think it was really the ending that spoiled things for me. it felt like the two options were she was going to end up with one of the guys, or she was going to remain a quote-unquote excellent woman. instead she ended up in some middle ground servitude area that I didn’t see coming or truly appreciate or understand how Mildred would appreciate what she was doing.

  9. I have also seen many lovely reviews of this book and this author, but have yet to read it/her. Maybe one of these days I will have a fortunate discovery of one of her books at a book sale like you did. I *have* been looking, but no luck yet.

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