I joined a new book club because I like to read and discuss books with likeminded people. A book club offers the opportunity to explore books and authors that wouldn’t otherwise catch my attention, and I was glad to find this one through my local writers’ group. The club’s focus is Twentieth Century Classics from a writer’s perspective. This month’s pick was “Quartet in Autumn” by Barbara Pym.
I have been writing and making up stories all my life, but it has been within the past few months that I’ve decided to own the title of “writer,” or “unpublished writer” to be exact. It had been a while since I had participated in a book club group and I liked the idea of reviewing the book as a writer to determine what makes it a classic.
The author and her book
The author, Barbara Pym, introduced the Quartet, the four main characters, at a 1970’s London office where they create an ensemble of unremarkable and unmarried middle-aged office clerks waiting to retire. Working together for many years, they develop a vague relationship bordering on friendship, but the characters, accustomed to living alone, can’t imagine crossing the line from co-workers to friends. The book has moments of British humor and elements of surprise.
I had never heard of Barbara Pym. As I began to enjoy the story, I looked her up to see what else she’d written. It turns out she has quite a following, and she often is compared to Jane Austen. There is even a Barbara Pym Society. While her writing has similarities to Austen’s stories of everyday English life, one book critic in a 2015 New Yorker article points out that Pym’s novels don’t have the fanciful happening ending. In “Quartet in Autumn” however, the story of these unassuming characters leaves one with this message from Letty Crowe: “But at least it made one realize that life still held infinite possibilities for change.”
How it relates
I liked the book from the beginning and considered it a page-turner as I read with anticipation trying to guess how the writer was going to play out the lives of the low-key characters in the story. You may have noticed that my tagline “Verbal Snapshots of a Simple Life.” That is precisely what caught my attention about “Quartet in Autumn.” It triggered an interest in more books by Barbara Pym especially after I read critics describe her work as “comfort food.” That’s precisely the feeling I would like to create in my writings. The book speaks to my conviction to treat each person with kindness because I don’t know what they struggle with in their life. Her stories focus on people doing mundane things, as everyone does in real life. If we take the time, we can notice that each person has a story and as I’ve learned, each person is the star of their own movie.
Six people besides me attended the book club meeting; three didn’t like the book at all, one was lukewarm, and the woman who recommended the book is a member of the Barbara Pym Society. Discussing books in such groups highlights the power or magic of the written word. It reminds us that how we receive a book or a story depends on where we are in our own lives. Is the writer tapping into a universal truth? Can the reader identify with the characters, why or why not? Is there anything familiar in the storyline such as time, place, occupation, relationship or social nuance?
For example, half the group thought the main characters were mere “blobs.” They saw the characters as grey people in a dark room and read the book with no expectation that it was going to offer anything more. Their final synopsis was that the novel was boring and depressing. I think however that the author’s intention was just the opposite. I think she wanted to show that we adapt to changes in our lives and find unexpected opportunities where we thought there were none. Sometimes life forces us to find alternatives to suit our personal evolution.
Writing style and expectations
It is not surprising those folks that found the book boring appeared to be of the mind that an adventure is around every corner and if it’s not there, one is obligated to find it. Fortunately, not every writer is a Hemmingway or in need an adrenaline rush to make life appear worthwhile. I tend to enjoy finding treasure in simple things. I don’t mind a quiet walk in the mornings. I do enjoy exploring and experiencing new adventures, but I am content with living a simple life where each day may or may not bring new opportunities for drama or swashbuckling pirates for example.
In the interpretation of the book, beyond the printed word, one realizes that the people portrayed in the story are not monochrome at all; they all have a particular story, and their backstory brought them to where they are in the present. The characters dreamed of different plans for their life. They didn’t envision themselves in a backroom office waiting to retire, but life happens, and they made it work for them. Even at this stage of life, they found as long as one has breath, it’s never too late to change course, and make a difference one person at a time. That is a message that I want to send in my writing as well.
I would recommend this book to curious minds like myself, willing to discover what’s beyond that which you expect to see. I would challenge the reader to see the value and worth in others that may not be like you but have a place in your world. Take a good look at the people in your neighborhood such as the clerk at the deli counter, the valet at the parking lot, or the maintenance man in your building. Say good morning, thank you or I appreciate your service. It means I see you; I recognize the humanness in you is the same as it is in me. I believe if we can regain that human connection we make the world better one person at a time.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my book review. I’m planning to continue to share my impressions and let you know what I’ve learned from these great writers. It will be my turn soon to pick three classics for the book club to choose. We have a list, but I’d like to hear your recommendations. Thanks for stopping by.
Here’s a little more about my writing style. https://rosalind.life/2018/04/19/letter-r-reality-and-beyond/