Alternative post title: Judging Books by their Covers: Sometimes it Works Out
Here is a lovely book I bought at Daunt because it had an Orla Kiely print on the cover. Orla Kiely + arty reissue = catnip.
And lo, I was completely delighted by Excellent Women. Mildred Lathbury (what a name!) is an unmarried woman living in London in the late 1940s and standing on the verge of spinsterhood; the daughter of a vicar and a decided member of the churchgoing crowd, she's both satisfied and unsatisfied with life. Satisfied in that she rather likes the elements of her life and doesn't have any precise ideas about what she'd like better -- dissatisfied in that she hates to think that romance and excitement have definitely passed her by. The action of the novel comes when some very worldly people arrive in Miss Lathbury's little world and threaten to shake it all up.
Ok, that sounds like I've copied it out of Bland Book Descriptions Monthly but (a) it's accurate and (b) the real joy here is in the characters. Pym is marvelous. Her characters are so distinct, and their opinions and personalities are immediately recognizable. I found myself giggling at conversations that I could just hear. There's a scene where Mildred, discombobulated and upset, finds herself buying a lipstick called "Hawaiian Fire" to reassert her femininity in the face of spinsterhood. As she's choosing it and dealing with the saleswoman, she knows it's ridiculous and the wrong color and an embarrassing name and she just can't stop. I'm not describing this well, but it's such a great scene; and something I could totally relate to. Once I decided to treat myself to a nice dinner out to celebrate [something or other]. When I got to the restaurant, the specialty dish I had especially gone there to have wasn't on the menu anymore, so I ordered something else. Which turned out to be out of stock so I had to order something else. Whereas usually waiters are quick to suggest dessert, I had to flag down mine to take a dessert order, which she practically tried to talk me out of ("the portion is very small"). And then the whole thing cost waaaay more than I had anticipated.
Or how about the time(s) I decided to celebrate [something or other] with a mani-pedi and ended up having a utilitarian manicure in a color I wasn't crazy about? Yes indeed, nothing but the best. Poor harassed Mildred buying Hawaiian Fire lipstick is an image that is now close to my heart.
The ending threw me a little bit. It was such a charming, funny book; and one does not expect the unexpected when dealing with charming, funny books any more than with the Spanish Inquisition. I just assumed that things would sort of come together in a standard sort of chick lit way. You know what they say about the difference between Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies (or at least I think they say it: that the difference is that one ends in marriage and the other in death). And yet the book ends with Mildred poised to carry on as an Excellent Woman for the foreseeable future. I guess taken together with The Making of a Marchioness that makes two books in a row where I expected some kind of major change for the heroine that simply didn't come. Maybe my expectations have led me to overlook things -- that's happened before. But between the two I liked Excellent Women much much much much better. And certainly I won't use this as an opportunity to learn my lesson about expecting novels about women written by women to follow predictable plotlines. Pah!
I posted about this book on Facebook (back before Lent started and I was on Facebook all the time), and through the conversation discovered the international Barbara Pym Society. Oh yes! They have a website and lovely-sounding events on both sides of the Atlantic. I enjoyed reading about Pym's life and career there; she has a fascinating story. AND -- here's where the post title comes in -- they note that she's often compared to Trollope. Well then!