Pairing Books with Movies: Excellent Women

Friday, January 9, 2015

Excellent Women
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.


Trisha said...

I have Call the Midwife on my list of to-watch shows. It seems quirky.

Rudejasper said...

I was so excited to see a Barbara Pym being reviewed and then kind of bummed that you weren't crazy about it. It's kind of great how very differently each reader relates to books and characters. I definitely took the book as a mild satire, that was chastising the way single women were viewed and "used" during that time. I found Mildred to be delightful, witty and insightful of others as well as her society. At the start of the book she is cast by herself and society into a role she is initially numbly content with but the appearance of the Napiers in her life and the drama they bring convince her to make a change. I thought she had a ton of personality which we the reader were allowed to see through her narration but which she kept mostly masked in her "role" as an excellent woman. Anyway, obviously I loved it since I am nattering away about it, lol, and am sorry it didn't speak to you in the same way. That's the way books go!

Melissa @ Confessions of an Avid Reader said...

I've only read one of Barbara Pym's novels, and it was Excellent Women. I liked it more than you did (I think I gave it four stars) but still haven't tried another of Pym's works. Maybe I'll do that this year.

Still haven't watched Call the Midwife, even though I've heard so many great things about it.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Trisha - I love it. I just started the third season.

Stephanie Shepherd - I really enjoyed Mildred by the middle of the novel, but I felt like she completely changed by the end and was happy to settle for anything. It didn't click with me, but I would love it if you could recommend another of her books that you enjoy. I'm definitely up for giving her another shot.

Melissa - I think I'll try another one of Pym's novels and see if it works for me.

Rudejasper said...

She's a somewhat newer discovery for me and I've only read one other of her books - No Fond Return of Love - but I think the MC in that book is more problematic than Mildred, lol! I did not like it as well as Excellent Women. I have heard Some Tame Gazelle and Quartet in Autumn mentioned frequently as two of her best. Thomas at My Porch is a Pym fan and maybe even did a Pym read-along at some point? Anyway he's reviewed quite a number of her books on his blog: And heck maybe she's just not your cup of tea and that's cool:0)! I was pretty charmed by her writing style and maybe that made me gloss over some character wonkiness.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Stephanie - That's so true, different strokes for different folks. But I try never to dismiss any author after only one book. Especially because my reading could be affected by my mood, etc. I'll check out Thomas' suggestions!