Saturday, December 2, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym

One of the women presented in the culinary biography collection What She Ate by Laura Shapiro is Barbara Pym, a British writer known for her comedy-of-manners novels set in small English parishes in the countryside. They generally revolve around "spinsters" who are active in their churches and communities. Clergy play prominent roles. I’m pretty sure I read a Pym novel years ago, but can’t remember anything about it. After reading the short biography in Shapiro’s book, filled with its food references and snips from Pym’s novels, I knew it was time to read another of her books.

I started with the first: Some Tame Gazelle. The protagonist is Belinda Bede, a 50+ year-old woman who lives with her sister, Harriet, in a cottage next to the vicarage. Belinda is in love with the married Archdeacon, and has been for thirty years. Shy and prim, Belinda spends her time on domestic duties and good works. Her sister, who is younger and more outgoing, makes a project of each new curate who comes to the parish.

The crux of the story is that the comfortable existence of these two women is upset by the arrival of two very different men: Mr. Mold and Bishop Theo Mbawawa. Mr. Mold is an associate of an old friend of Belinda’s. He is of a lower social class, flirtatious, and a drinker, and he finds himself smitten with Harriet. The bishop was once a curate doted upon by Harriet but he has moved on to missionary work in Africa. Harriet has high hopes that he will remember her fondly and possibly propose, but the bishop is rather more impressed by the quiet Belinda. In truth, the women like their lives as they are, and the intrusion of these men into their routines is more unsettling than flattering or romantic.

The insights and commentary are gently humorous. The action is subdued but the novel is nevertheless highly entertaining. Barbara Pym has often been named on lists of "underrated" novelists. Her books have an enduring charm. My to-read pile just keeps growing!

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