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Monday, December 9



Naomi and I have been trying to get Heather into Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books, the series on which TV’s True Blood is based. She dutifully gave the first audiobook a try, but was put off by the chirpy narrator portraying a lead character who is, as Heather said, “constantly talking about her ponytail.”

Although I understand that reaction, the reason Heather disliked the book is actually one of the things that, to me, make the series so appealing. Despite the fantastical and racy subject matter — vampires, shapeshifters, and fairies, with a side helping of sex and violence — the author devotes a significant portion of the books to following lead character Sookie through the business of her daily life as she cleans her house, agonizes over what to wear, goes to church, plans baby showers, suntans, works as a barmaid, and, yes, adjusts her ponytail.

That such mundane details would contribute to the charm of a novel might seem counterintuitive. It’s received wisdom among teachers of fiction writing that a successful book should reflect Alfred Hitchcock’s assertion: a good story is “life with the dull parts left out.” And yet somehow, in these books, judicious inclusion of “dull parts” works. They help create the reality of the setting and build a feeling of familiarity with the lead character.

The Sookie books are not unique in this feature. It may seem strange that a sexy urban fantasy set it small-town Louisiana should have anything in common with a comedy of manners set in postwar England, but according to interviews and her own blog, Harris is a fan of Barbara Pym and rereads her works often. So it’s perhaps not surprising that her books should use a technique honed to perfection by Pym. Intrigued by Harris’s plug for Excellent Women, I gave it a try and am now officially hooked on this writer.

Barbara Pym (1913–1980) was a British novelist known for her novels satirizing middle-class English society. According to a bio piece on the website of the Barbara Pym Society (yes, there is one): “...she probes the human condition, seen through the prism of such quotidian events as jumble sales and walks in the woods. Her characters are unassuming people leading unremarkable lives; Pym became the chronicler of quiet lives.” Excellent Women, first published in 1952, is the second of her novels.

According toWikipedia, the title phrase “excellent women,” “is used ironically as a condescending reference to the kind of women who perform menial duties in the service of churches and voluntary organizations.” Or, as A.N. Wilson more pithily writes in his introduction to my edition, “Excellent women are women that men take for granted.”

Mildred Lathbury, the lead character, is one of these. Her quiet life, filled with good works for the church and her part-time job helping “impoverished gentlewomen,” is disturbed by several events: an unconventional married couple move in upstairs and she develops a crush on the husband; the anthropologist wife appears to be having an affair with a fellow anthropologist who becomes increasingly interested in Mildred; a clergyman’s widow seduces Mildred’s friend Father Malory. Nothing particularly earth-shattering happens — the pleasure of reading the novel is in sharing the perspective of its lead character and becoming immersed in her small world as seen through her eyes.

As Penguin’s essay on the book points out, “Mildred’s wit and independence subvert the stereotype that ‘excellent women’ are dull. Set against the backdrop of postwar London, a city sorting through the disruptions of wartime bombing, the beginnings of feminism, and the end of colonialism, the novel offers effortless social critique that is as entertaining as it is enlightening.”

Few of us would identify “social critique” as something we are looking for in a novel; we want a good read. We want to lose ourselves and be entertained. Pym achieves this, paradoxically, by leaving in the dull parts. Just like Charlaine Harris’s Sookie and her ponytail, it is through everyday acts that Pym builds the reality of her setting and her character and makes us care about them. Through these details — the making of endless cups of tea, the hemming of a set of curtains, the planning of the Christmas Bazaar, the discussion of the correct placement of an oven cloth, the supplying of a shared bathroom with toilet paper — the plot develops, the humour emerges, the attitudes of the characters are revealed, and the realities of life in postwar Britain are brought vividly —and hugely enjoyably — to life.

by guest contributor Sara Goodchild


Other reasons to immediately go and read this novel: 

1. The character names are incredible. E.g.:
Rockingham “Rocky” Napier (the unsuitable love interest)
Everard Bone (an anthropologist and eventual suitor)
Allegra Grey (the clergyman’s widow, a seductress)
Father Greatorex (a bumbling curate)
Sister Blatt (a jolly parish worker)

2. It’s just over 200 pages ­— a good fast read. All you need is a big squishy chair, a pot of tea, and a few nice biscuits and you’re set for an afternoon of pure pleasure.

3. The Barbara Pym Society would want you to. Please don’t disappoint these nice people.

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