“That day the four of them went to the library, though at different times.”
For Barbara Pym Reading Week I decided to read the novel that is also the Library Thing Virago group Barbara Pym book for June. It is the first Pym novel that I bought around 4 or so years ago when I only knew her name from the blogging world, but didn’t know much about her. I’m glad I snatched this one up because I really like the Plume editions of her books and they are hard to find these days.
Quartet in Autumn was published in 1977 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize that year, which doesn’t surprise me because it is horribly depressing. This story about aging and loneliness and missed connections unsettled me. Letty, Marcia, Norman and Edwin are co-workers in an office and are all near retirement age and all live alone. Their main human interaction is every day at the office with each other (though Edwin is very involved with the church). Marcia, Norman and Edwin are somewhat prickly, but Letty is kind and tactful – she is most like the traditional Pym character I’ve grown accustomed to.
Halfway through the novel Letty and Marcia retire. As Letty struggles to find meaning in her life, Marcia exhibits increasingly erratic and bizarre behavior that the others ignore or explain away. She’s the retired woman who becomes a hoarder, stops caring about her appearance and spurns all social interaction especially with the young social worker who regularly checks in on her. As the months pass by Letty continues to adjust to her retirement while Marcia slips silently into her own hazy reality.
Pym admirably addresses many themes of aging and retirement in Quartet in Autumn. From loss of identity to financial woes to loneliness to the decline of mental and physical health, Pym covers the issues that concern the retired and elderly among every generation. I respected her portrayal of these characters and their very real challenges, but I did not enjoy the book. It is incredibly sad and touched a nerve I wasn’t aware was so raw for me. This novel did not offer the familiar escape that Pym’s novels usually do, though I do think it is wise and beautiful.
How is Barbara Pym Reading Week going for you?