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I really enjoyed this story of a family, as seen through their annual camping holidays on a farm in Wales. I found it to be a lyrical book, in which character and description were more important than action. Having said that, there were also many interesting plot developments, some of which were dramatic conflicts and upheavals, others subtle and slow alterations in the family members’ lives and relationships that gradually happen over the years. I felt that these slow developments were like a smaller scale version of the infinitesmal changes that create landscape and geology, which are also beautifully described in the book. I could feel the author’s knowledge and love of the landscape, which created a vivid sense of place. This lyricism and poetic, unusual way of looking at the world also came out in unexpected places, such as in descriptions of the mother of the family, Colette’s, work as a bus conductor. I really liked this aspect of the book.

The two most interesting characters to me were Colette, and her oldest son, Janus. I also found the father, Aldous, very sympathetic and was interested in his adventures on cycling holidays as a teenager. However, Aldous then rather faded away from the main action, while Colette and Janus took centre stage. Janus is a complicated, troubled but talented character. He studies music but then seems to squander his talents and lead a slightly chaotic life. He has problems with relationships, is awkward around women and on a couple of occasions becomes obsessed. I always enjoyed reading about his rather strange and complex conversations and interactions with his mother. I found Colette’s storyline absorbing too, in particular an unusual problem she has which goes to some extent unacknowledged by the family and others around her. The book here shows its historical context clearly in its depiction of the ignorance surrounding Colette’s problem. It’s not a book that includes many obvious historic events, but I did get a sense of the era. The family also had a particularity about them that made them seem very real. Their individual characteristics and foibles brought them to life, and I liked the way they cared so much about literature, art, music and ideas. Although there is a lot of affection within the family, there is also a sense of stagnation, as if they want too much for things to remain the same forever. Without any forward momentum, their lives inevitably begin to disintegrate. The yearly holiday becomes a symbol of the golden age of family life they can’t hold onto. As things fall apart, the parents feel a deep nostalgia for their first few holidays, when the children were young, and they desperately attempt to recapture happier times.

I am pleased to know that there is a sequel, I’ll Go To Bed At Noon, so I’ll be able to find out what happens next.

 

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I have recently read several books by Barbara Pym, whose 1950s novels can always be relied on to make me laugh and keep me absorbed all the way through. My favourite of the ones I’ve read so far is Jane and Prudence, I think because the characters are her most sympathetic (although still observed in the same sharp and perceptive way). Reading it is a completely light-hearted and comforting experience. I then read The Sweet Dove Died, in which the (anti-)heroine, Leonora, is perhaps an older, more critically drawn version of the glamorous Prudence. In this novel, the sadness and loneliness of being unloved were much more apparent, since Leonora lacked Prudence’s affairs and adventures, and in fact was made miserable by her attraction to a much younger man.

The way in which Pym writes about relationships is very distinctive. Many of the characters in her books are ‘spinsters’ or slightly bored wives, who throw their energies into the church or simply interfering in the lives of their friends and neighbours. Often, beneath their apparently sensible and reserved exteriors, they are very romantic and idealistic and given to quoting nineteenth-century poetry. A recurrent theme in Pym’s novels is the idea that women need someone to love and look after, perhaps more than they need to be loved themselves, and her women characters often end up being infatuated with some unsuitable or unworthy man. A lot of the sadness in her novels comes from the way in which women don’t find anyone who appreciates their care and affection, and their desire to be useful, to be needed, goes to waste.

The next Pym novel I read was A Glass of Blessings, in which the heroine Wilmet falls for her friend’s brother Piers (who of course turns out to be not only uninterested but unavailable in every possible way). In this book, I felt that there was a greater distance between Pym and her protagonist, and as the story progresses, the reader gradually becomes aware of Wilmet’s flaws, her snobbishness and narrow-mindedness. She is so absorbed in her relationship with Piers that she doesn’t notice her husband almost having an affair, and is unaware of the developments in her other friends’ and relations’ lives. She is still a sympathetic character however and is very believable. I like the way in which Pym observes the fleeting thoughts that people have about others, but which usually go unnoticed and unrecorded. I find that her books give me the pleasure of recognition. They also revel in many of the absurd moments in life, especially in her descriptions of the church life and clergy. I would recommend her books to anyone who likes comedy that comes from slightly ridiculous dialogue and an acute observation of everyday life.

The final Pym book I’ve read (so far) is called No Fond Return of Love. I enjoyed the setting of the book (in academia and publishing, especially amidst the people who do the more mundane and unappreciated tasks), and the author’s very funny descriptions of the kind of characters who populate this world. I also liked the comic way in which the main character, Dulcie, ‘researches’ (in reality, virtually stalks) not only the man she’s fascinated by but various relatives of his as well. I would love to know what Barbara Pym would have thought of Google and Facebook! I felt that with her deep interest in people, bordering on voyeurism, Dulcie was rather like a novelist herself.

As well as all the enjoyable comedy, there is certainly a melancholy feeling about some of the books at times. Some of the humour and wistfulness of the books comes from the idea of all these single women who seemed compelled, once they reached a certain age, to start wearing dowdy tweed and doing good works in the parish. The world in which Pym characters live is restricted even for its time and is depicted as such within the novels, but their interactions and clashes with the world outside their immediate social circles are part of what make the books interesting and funny, and in fact these unexpected encounters tend to open up new lives and hope for the characters.

 

The Easter Parade tells the story of the very different lives of two sisters, Sarah and Emily. Their childhood is spent with their overbearing mother, with occasional visits from their distant father. Sarah grows up to lead the apparently perfect life of a 1950s housewife and mother, but her husband turns out to be abusive and violent. Emily has a career and a more adventurous life in the city, but this life also brings loneliness and a series of relationships that are often painful or unfulfilling.

I really liked the book’s irony and the understated style, which somehow conveys the sadness of the characters’ lives and only makes the emotional impact greater. The extremely realistic, often comic characterization and dialogue show the author’s huge gift for observation and I sympathised completely with Emily’s aspirations and disillusionments (the book is mostly written from her point of view). The book interestingly portrays the relationship between the two sisters, which includes rivalry but also an affection and closeness which they rarely express. I feel the book also suggests how easy it is to drift through life not really understanding the meaning or implications of what we do. Although it is undeniably bleak, I loved this book for its exploration of the disappointments and pain of life, and for its beautiful writing, especially the perfect final scene, which has stayed with me ever since I finished the book.