Surprise! Another Barbara Pym novel! This one has got to be one of my favorites, though. It deals with issues of perception and marriage, and sexual identity forms a huge part of society in this novel. Published a few months before Pym’s own death in 1980, this novel questions the status quo and is thoroughly modern in a way that even I did not expect of Pym.
Emma Horwick is a 30-something anthropologist living in her mother’s cottage out in the country. There, she becomes drawn into the lives of the villagers around her: Tom, the widowed but handsome rector; his spinster sister Daphne who prefers seeing the younger doctor, Martin Shrubsole, over his older counterpart; Martin’s wife Avice and her widowed mother, who is living with them; and Graham Pettifer, an old flame of Emma’s who becomes estranged from his wife and moves into a nearby cottage for the summer. It’s a delightful tale of gossip, of who-loves-whom, and how-will-it-all-work-together (spoiler: it may not all actually come together neatly).
There are some very interesting allusions to Austen’s Emma which were surprising but an unexpected delight. While this is not exactly an Emma adaptation, it’s nice to see Pym more openly acknowledging her literary heritage and going “back” to her roots, though with a modern twist. The observations of the characters are a true delight to read. Emma’s own research on the nature of the villager, especially from an anthropologist’s eyes, is hilarious and all-too-true. I enjoyed this Pym novel tremendously, and I think it might be one of my favorites yet.