Quartet in Autumn – Barbara Pym (1977)

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One of the more well-known Pym volumes, this was the gentle read that I was looking for. This follows the intersecting lives of four late-middle-aged people who have worked together in an office for a few years. They’re around the same age, and when one of their loose group retires, it throws new dynamics into the mix. Two men, two women – and the only thing that they have in common with each other is working in the same office. However, even with such differences, the small group find that, when two of the group retire, they have more overlap than they realize.

So, this fairly straightforward narrative touches on several issues really: gender, aging, small group interaction, loneliness, friendship. And surely the title reflects the stage of life of this small group are in… As one of my friends describes Anita Brookner’s characters: “It’s very beige”… 🙂

However, despite the beigeness, the story sucked me in and I read very quickly. (Partly because it’s a very short book – novella? – but also partly because the narrative is so well written, it’s a pleasure to read at the same time.)

For example, this description is perfect:

“…her hair straggled in elf locks…”

And then there’s this one… The set-up for the scene is that the characters are finishing their lunch at work one day…

“Jelly babies [the normal end of the meal] being in short supply, [he] offered a packet of licorice all-sorts and [the friend] selected a brown and black one.”

The level of detail was fascinating and was a great tool to reflect the importance of small things in these somewhat small lives that the characters live. (I also love Jelly Babies (UK sweetie) and it’s not often that they are mentioned in books!)

Another example – this time, another character is offering someone some dessert after a small disagreement at the table:

“Now, what about some ice cream?” he asked in a soothing tone, feeling that ice cream might act like oil on troubled waters and pacify the angry [friend] more effectively than any words of his…”

It was definitely the writing that made the book so very good. Pym was an expert at tiny nuances and this works as a perfect foil to showcase her characters and the minutiae (important though it is) of her characters’ lives.

Poignant and thoughtful, this was a good autumnal read.

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5 thoughts on “Quartet in Autumn – Barbara Pym (1977)

  1. I love Barbara Pym novels. I haven’t read this one yet, but it sounds delightful. I just wish my library carried more of her books. They have a thousand copies of Danielle Steele and Sandra Brown, but only three of Barbara Pym’s novels. It’s an upside down world we live in. 🙂

      • Sure. If you’d like, just send your contact details to me via my email (on the About page) and I’ll get it on the way to you… Sharing is caring, say the Carebears. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Suggested Summer Reading…. (Part One) | Just One More Page…

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