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Reading Barbara Pym

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A friend, a good reader, didn't exactly recommend Barbara Pym; she just shot a longing glance at her bookshelf in passing and murmured, "Oh, I wish I could just take down a Barbara Pym again and go to bed."

It was one of those days. Windy, cold -- not blizzardy yet, but I was wishing I had worn something a little less chic, a little more lined-flannel. Snow boots. New York was looking gray. I had a ticket back to LA, but weather aside, it was one of those planes you don't want to get on. I had found my way home here, somehow.

"Barbara Pym?"

I'd remembered those titles, mass-market paperbacks, no? Wasn't that what everyone's mother was reading in the sixties? Green or pink, weren't they, and everywhere, or was that Future Shock?

Anyway, I hesitated in the bookstore, and took down a Penelope Fitzgerald instead -- Offshore, and brilliant, but like all of Penelope Fitzgerald, too short. You want them to go on forever.

"Yes, the only thing wrong with her is that she isn't still alive and writing," said the friend who introduced me to her work. He is an art historian and museum director, and his taste is always right, but even if it weren't, you would love Penelope Fitzgerald. Her book about the poet Novalis opens with the yearly washing in Germany, at the time of Goethe. Yearly washing -- my God, who would have thought it, but once you do, of course it makes sense. How else could they have managed? Does anyone now even remember how hard, how cold, how wet? Not to mention the making of the soap.

And you read that book, The Blue Flower, which starts there and continues to astound and enlighten, and you assume that Penelope Fitzgerald clearly grew up in Germany. That 18th-century poets there must be her forte.

But then you pick up The Beginning of Spring from which you learn more of what it would be like to really live in Russia than from War and Peace, not that we don't love that as well, but the point is that Penelope Fitzgerald really is marvelous, really is the real thing, that sort of clear brilliant shot in the heart we are all seeking, but, as my friend mentioned above, her books are few and they begin and end, and one is left one day scratching one's head in front of the Barbara Pym on the shelves and wondering -- well, why not?

Especially since one is in the library this time, not the bookstore, and there they are, the ones one has heard were good, since the truth is one did indulge in an immediate hit of Pym while still in New York and found it charming, but a little bit -- well, not quite. For one thing, the end was improbably good. The nice girl did get the handsome young man, or was it his brother? That was one thing. Her name was Dulcie, which was also a problem.

But this all took place for me during the distraction of packing up and saying goodbye to the river and the ice and the snow and the most interesting people in America, half of whom one only sees on the subway, and doesn't even have to meet. Goodbye to all that, and back to the Golden State, the supermarkets and freeways, the women driving each in her Prius to gluten-free lunches in ranch houses to give their zillions tax-free to hip nonprofits who've managed 501(c)(3)s -- nothing wrong with that.

But it rather upstaged what was left of the first dose of B. Pym, so this time, I picked out two and did the right thing -- took them to bed.

The first one, 'Prudence and Jane' -- or was it Jane and Prudence? -- was really worth the guilt and crumbs in the bedclothes. Prudence -- no, Jane was a vicar's daughter and a vicar's wife. Everyone in a Pym book is one or the other, if not both, and since we don't quite know over here what a vicar is, I ended up just assuming it meant minister, in the old sense of the word -- what they now seem to call "an Episcopal priest."

All these vicars live in lovely and/or very cold old houses with gardens next to the churches where they give sermons every Sunday and spend the rest of the week in and out of the church which is peopled mostly by spinsters and strange old boys, whose lives revolve around what they call "jumble sales" and cleaning brass. Vicars' wives are part of the deal, and in this case, Jane, a former intellectual at Oxford, doesn't quite fill the bill. "Oh, dear," she says, when asked to pour tea, "I'm afraid it didn't quite come to me miraculously when I married."

Something like that. "What's so funny?'' the people in my bedroom were asking me.

And I wanted to share, California-style, but I could never quite put my finger on it. Nothing was exactly funny when separated out and read, but I did find myself laughing out loud, not just during that one, but also in Excellent Women, which was probably just as good but I didn't like so well.

Note, btw, the use of the word "so" here, as in "so well." I learned that in seventh-grade grammar -- one uses "so" rather than "as" after a negative, but who does that anymore except someone who has just spent an afternoon with Barbara Pym? Whose England, also btw, in the late fifties was lacking meat and eggs, both of which merit discussion, as to the getting [early at the butcher, or befriend the vicar's cook], and lacking that, the possible substitutes.

On the other hand, it is astounding how much tea and cake these married, unmarried, and soon or never-to-be-married women eat. And how do they never get fat? Or are they simply fatter than we are, and that is fine with them? If I'd had cake with them every time, I'd have certainly put on a stone that week alone.

But the truth is that toward the end of Excellent Women, also starring a vicar's daughter named -- what was she named? Miss something, but what was her Christian [appropriate use here, I promise] name? Dulcie was the one, so wasn't this one Mildred? I think it actually was "Mildred." Anyway, I quite liked her and found myself hoping she would find someone she liked and get married, rather than face a lifetime of volunteer work at the Society for Distressed Gentlewomen, when not sorting clothes for another jumble sale with the vicar and his maiden sister.

Though instead of that standard, if fantastic, resolution, it got worse, but in this case, if you want to know what happened, you will have to read the book. But I will say it made me bloody mad, mad enough to throw down my Barbara Pym's, jump from my bed with a cry of "Enough!", strap on a backpack, and after a quick stop by the library for an emphatic return, take to the hills.

A fast hike up, the kind that would ensure an entirely unladylike sweat, in just the worst jeans possible, hair uncombed. The kind of woman you could see from a distance would not be Excellent, and would neither make you tea nor proofread your index.

And that might be the point of Barbara Pym.