#CBR7 Review #86: Less Than Angels by Barbara Pym

I’m winding down to the last Pym novels in my library stack (and that she wrote) and feeling sort of melancholy that I can’t read her again for the first time. Ah, well. It’s the danger of binge-reading a new favorite author. I’m just glad I get to share her here on CBR (and hooray to those of you who are reading her!!!)

Pym tackles anthropologists and academics again in Less Than Angels. Here, a love triangle emerges between Tom, a dissertating anthropologist, Catherine, a journalist and his longtime “housemate” (we assume live-in girlfriend, though such a term did not really exist in Pym’s time), and Deirdre, a 19-year-old anthropology student. The workings of life, of love, and of academic achievements all fall under her scalpel. The novel takes a dark turn towards the end, for which I was unprepared. It’s not unpleasant, however, and it makes the title even more poignant. To suggest that humankind is “less than angels” implies that our faults and failings do not make us “greater than,” but rather “part of.” And it’s this “part of” that Pym revels in. Her female characters are well-shaped by their own desires and ambitions, just as they stand out in contrast to social expectations for them.

While this novel was not my favorite at first, this “dark turn” to which I vaguely allude shapes the plot and propels it forward. It makes the novel less about tea and more about the frailty of our human existence. Plus, you know how much I love a good joke about trying to finish a dissertation. When Catherine and Tom talk about his struggles to finish his dissertation, I kept nodding and saying, “Oh, buddy. Been there.”


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