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by Barbara Pym and A. N. Wilson
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An unqualifiedly great novel from the writer most likely to be compared to Jane Austen, this is a very funny, perfectly written book that can rival any other in its ability to capture the essence of its characters on the page. Mildred Lathbury, the narrator of Pym's excellent book is a never-married woman in her 30s--which in 1950s England makes her a nearly-confirmed spinster. Hers is a pretty unexciting life, centered around her small church, and part-time job. But Mildred is far more perceptive and witty than even she seems to think, and when Helena and Rockingham Napier move into the flat below her, there seems to be a chance for her life to take a new direction.
Over thirty and bordering on spinsterhood, Mildred Lathbury lives a quiet life in an unfashionable section of London until Helena and Rockingham Napier, an anthropologist and her flag-lieutenant husband, move into the flat below. Mildred captivates us with her wry, keen account of the roiling of new and old relationships. Juliet Stevenson's Mildred is outstanding. Equally impressive are her distinctive portrayals of the disparate and colorful characters. In Stevenson's reading, we're treated to vivid, comic, finely wrought theater. J.H.L. (c)AudioFile, Portland, Maine
From 500 Great Books by Women; review by Kirsten Backstrom
Mildred Lathbury, the narrator of Excellent Women, is washing up after providing her neighbors with tea and yet another opportunity to impress their problems upon her. Mildred maintains a tolerant and wonderfully wry perspective on her supporting role in the melodramatic lives of others, but she has no desire to be "always making cups of tea at moments of crisis." In fact, she has complicated and often inappropriate ideas about her relationship to people around her. She examines the social psychology of each situation afterward as if she were inspecting a soapy cup for lingering stains: "My thoughts went round and round and it occurred to me that if I ever wrote a novel it would be of the 'stream of consciousness' type and deal with an hour in the life of a woman at the sink." Excellent Women, however, goes beyond Mildred's introspection to include a bevy of curates, anthropologists, gossips, and ingrates in parochial, academic, and domestic contexts. In Barbara Pym's fiction, the preoccupations are petty, the daydreams disappointing, the romance unromantic, and the intelligent woman who does all the work is bound to be unappreciated. Oddly enough, these elements add up to delightful reading. Honesty, insight, feminism, and some terribly funny remarks are hidden among the teacups and conversations. If you are patient with Excellent Women you may discover an entirely unexpected story sandwiched between the lines. -- For great reviews of books for girls, check out Let's Hear It for the Girls: 375 Great Books for Readers 2-14.
Lord David Cecil
[One of] the finest examples of high comedy to have appeared in England during the past seventy-five years.
[One of] the finest examples of high comedy to have appeared in England during the past seventy-five years. (Lord David Cecil)
A startling reminder that solitude may be chosen and that a lively, full novel can be constructed entirely within the precincts of that regressive virtue, feminine patience. (John Updike, The New Yorker)
Reading Barbara Pym is . . . a wonderful experience, full of unduplicable perceptions, sensations, and soul-stirrings. (Newsweek)
Reading Barbara Pym is . . . a wonderful experience, full of unduplicable perceptions, sensations, and soul-stirrings.
Excellent Women is one of Barbara Pyms richest and most amusing high comedies. Mildred Lathbury is a clergymans daughter and a mild-mannered spinster in 1950s England. She is one of those excellent women, the smart, supportive, repressed women who men take for granted. As Mildred gets embroiled in the lives of her new neighborsanthropologist Helena Napier and her handsome, dashing husband, Rocky, and Julian Malory, the vicar next doorthe novel presents a series of snapshots of human life as actually, and pluckily, lived in a vanishing world of manners and repressed desires.
About the Author
Barbara Pym (19131980) was a British novelist best known for her series of satirical novels on English middle-class society.
A. N. Wilson is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a prize-winning scholar and author.
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