A few months ago one of my teeth fell out while I was eating a prune. (Look, I live a very glamorous life.) After cleaning the tooth and securing it in a Ziploc baggie, I recalled that only a year earlier I’d asked the dentist about that exact tooth. Second molar. It had seemed wobbly.
At the time, the dentist waved away the issue. “Just avoid toffee,” he advised. Avoid toffee, I wrote in a note on my phone. Well, the prune accomplished what toffee could only dream of. I went back to the dentist, Ziploc in hand, and asked if he could reinsert the tooth. That’s not how it works, as you probably know. I was fitted with a crown. Later, it occurred to me that I’d left the baggie in his office. A wicked part of me hoped the displaced tooth would haunt him — not for long, perhaps only a minute or two.
I mention this only because it is the type of semi-comic mundanity that appears in Barbara Pym novels. Or, in some cases, makes up the entirety of a Barbara Pym novel. One of my favorite Pyms is below.
Wishing you good dental fortune,
This novel features all the staples of Barbara Pym’s fiction: exquisite euphemisms, intramarital warfare, ample consumption of stewed apples. In an age of unchecked personal self-disclosure (see tooth story above), it is refreshing to read a novel about the quality of reticence. In this case, it is the reticence of the midcentury English bourgeoisie. In PymWorld, insults are not merely veiled but smothered; what appears to be a throwaway comment about how a guy takes his tea turns out to be nothing less than character assassination.
Wilmet, our protagonist, is a lady of leisure in postwar London. While her husband does something vague in an office, she attends clerical events, lunches with her mother-in-law and tentatively seeks a purpose in life. Poor Wilmet. People are always feeding her obscure pieces of information and following it up with “… and you know what that means,” which Wilmet does not.
My experience with Barbara Pym is that her novels polarize. Some readers are instantly riveted; others are apocalyptically bored. There seems to be no middle ground. Aren’t you curious to discover which pole you occupy?
Read if you like: Penelope Fitzgerald, rhubarb, Somerset Maugham, the “Up” series of documentary films, taking umbrage
Available from: Check the library or your used bookshop of choice (online or otherwise)
“Eleutheria,” by Allegra Hyde
Willa Marks was raised in an old hunting cabin in the woods of New Hampshire, where her parents prepared for the end of days in an unconventional manner. (On the one hand, they stockpiled canned goods and built a bunker. On the other hand, they used drugs not historically known to increase odds of survival, such as fentanyl.) When the parents die suddenly of an overdose, Willa is sent to Boston. There, in the nation’s cradle of liberty, she obtains a copy of a book written by an ex-military guy who has established an eco-warrior camp on a tropical island.
The community’s motto is “TO PRESERVE AND PROTECT — TO CONSERVE AND CORRECT.” Upon arrival, Willa is issued a bamboo toothbrush, a pair of vegan-leather flip-flops, and a contract that she signs without reading. (In fiction, signing a contract without reading it is shorthand for idiocy, and yet — how often does one do precisely the same in real life? How many terms and conditions have I accepted when downloading a piece of trivial software — and will I meet a vicious end because of it? Time will tell.)
The narrative toggles back and forth between the tropical island and Willa’s relationship with a Harvard professor. It’s a weird, melancholic adventure novel — not a genre specimen you come across every day.