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1001 Book Review: Excellent Women by Barbara Pym


Those of you new to our blog my not know that Book Worm and I are making our way through Boxell’s 1001 list of Books You Must Read Before You Die. This list has been revised several times and 1305 books have been on at least one iteration of the list. You can find the full list on page “1001 books.” We both happen to belong to an online reading group that is making its way through the list so occasionally we post our joint reviews of 1001 books. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym was one of the books we read with that group in June. Keep reading to see if we liked it and thought it worthy of the list.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
Published in: 1952
Reviewed by: Book Worm  and or Jen
Rating: ★★★
Find it here: Excellent Women

Synopsis from Goodreads: Excellent Women is one of Barbara Pym’s richest and most amusing high comedies. Mildred Lathbury is a clergyman’s daughter and a mild-mannered spinster in 1950s England. She is one of those “excellent women,” the smart, supportive, repressed women who men take for granted. As Mildred gets embroiled in the lives of her new neighbors–anthropologist Helena Napier and her handsome, dashing husband, Rocky, and Julian Malory, the vicar next door–the novel presents a series of snapshots of human life as actually, and pluckily, lived in a vanishing world of manners and repressed desires.

Book Worm’s Thoughts: This is a slowed paced character focused novel told from the point of view of Mildred a single women in her 30s. Mildred dedicates her life to doing good works while privately hoping that she is not viewed by others as too virtuous. She has an interest in people and what goes on in their lives and would love to be a gossip, but circumstances prevent her. She tends to observe life more than actively pursuing it and this leads her to be rather downtrodden.

Mildred is very much a product of her time (1950s). She doesn’t really want to marry but feels that as a single woman this should be her aim. While she may be comfortable with her single status, those around her feel she must be in need of a man.

I found this book to be quite dry and dull as nothing really happens to Mildred. She merely gets caught up in the affairs of others and I found the ending a little bleak. That said, the choices Mildred faces are still relevant for women today although the precise circumstances have changed. Given the time it was written, this is an insightful book. Unfortunately it just didn’t grab me.

“I reflected a little sadly that this was only too true and hoped I did not appear too much that kind of person to others. Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.”

“I began piling cups on a tray. I suppose it was cowardly of me, but I felt that I wanted to be alone, and what better place to chose than the sink, where neither of the men would follow me?”

Jen’s Thoughts: 2.5 stars. Like watching paint dry? Then you have found your book! While very well-written, I found this book to be unbearably boring. I normally quite like British humor and thought I would love this book. In fact almost everyone in our reading group loved it, giving it 4 and 5 star ratings. I thought it all rather inane. If I had to read one more passage in which Mildred sat around making tea for people, I would have died. Luckily, the book was short and I only had to read 500 conversations of women and men gossiping over tea. For me, this was like the chick-lit read of the 1950s with the exception of excellent writing — I can’t deny the author’s talent for writing.

I will acknowledge that I did find moments of humor in some of the anecdotes presented and Mildred was a sympathetic character. I actually liked the ending because the author didn’t just give us the easy fairy tale ending but instead gave us an ending that reinforced the strength of the protagonist.

Anyway, don’t take my word for it. As I mentioned, everyone but the two of us loved this novel. Alexander McCall Smith called it “One of the 20th century’s most amusing novels” in his review for the Guardian. I will add a disclaimer and say that I listened to the audio of this book rather than reading it and this may have impacted my review. I actually thought that the audio was well done and the narrator’s voice was a perfect fit for Mildred and most of the other characters. Inexplicably, when reading attempting the accent of the Welsh character, the narrator had an odd tendency to slip into what sounded remarkably like a Jamaican accent. Inexplicably since the narrator was British. This amused me to no end and made me laugh much more than the actual book.

Who would like this book? Barbara Pym and her novels have been compared to Jane Austen and there is some similarity in the quiet narrative of societal women and their everyday actions. This book isn’t for those who like a good old fashioned romance with a happy ending. Readers with an interest in a historical view of life for a single woman in London in the 1950s will enjoy this. Many in our group stated that they found it to be a light and humorous read.

Want to try it for yourself? You can find a copy here: Excellent Women

We want to hear from you! Have you read this book? What did you think? 

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. I love the cover of this book!


    June 21, 2016
  2. Tracy S #

    I liked it- it reminded me of Keeping Up Appearances, but with an unmarried, not quite as nosy main character. However, now that I’ve read both of Pym’s books on the list, I don’t plan to seek out any more of them.

    Liked by 1 person

    June 21, 2016
  3. Call me Cordelia #

    Interesting. I’ve never heard of this author; I may give her a try someday!


    June 22, 2016
    • Definitely try it out. Most people who read this book with us loved it and if you give it a try, I hope you end up loving it too even if we didn’t

      Liked by 1 person

      June 22, 2016
  4. nctyler #

    I love Barbara Pym and this novel is one of her best. I love her dry, ironic sense of the poignant triviality of daily life as it is lived. I reread her books frequently.


    July 8, 2016

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