by Barbara Pym
Set in 1950s England, Excellent Women explores Mildred Lathbury’s small world. She’s a “spinster” in her 30s who lives a quiet life. Her closet friends are a vicar and his sister. When the Napiers, a contentious married couple, move into her boarding house her life is thrown into turmoil.
I struggled with this one because I honestly couldn’t decide if Pym intended it as a parody or not. Mildred comes across as a cookie cutter version of a spinster. She’s a bit nosy and seems to have no real personality. She’s easily swayed by whoever she’s with at the moment. On the other hand, Helen Napier is a fascinating character. She’s a self-proclaimed horrible housekeeper and cook. She’s passionate about her work in the field of anthropologist, and she’s struggling in her marriage. Unfortunately she’s the one who is presented as a bit of a villain.
The book was not without its charm. There’s a scene where Mildred returns to her childhood school for a reunion event. She’s with an old friend and they are talking about how small and simple everyone’s jobs and descriptions sound. They talk about how the main thing everyone cares about is whether or not they are married. It’s sad and true how little our lives can seem so small when we describe them in a single line or two. The depth and heart of anyone’s life get missed when they are simplified in that way.
BOTTOM LINE: Not my cup of tea, but I’d like to try something else by these author to see if it was just Mildred’s personality that rubbed me the wrong way.
Pairing Books with Movies: Excellent Women is set in England in the 1950s, so the BBC show “Call the Midwife” is a perfect pairing. It also explores England during that time period, but it gives some balance to the role women had in that world. “Call the Midwife” shows a group of strong women who work as midwives in a poor community, it’s a much more progressive and realistic version of England at that time. It’s a fantastic show and that’s coming from someone who is kind of terrified of all things connected to childbirth.