Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

Quartet in Autumn

“That day the four of them went to the library, though at different times.”

For Barbara Pym Reading Week I decided to read the novel that is also the Library Thing Virago group Barbara Pym book for June.  It is the first Pym novel that I bought around 4 or so years ago when I only knew her name from the blogging world, but didn’t know much about her. I’m glad I snatched this one up because I really like the Plume editions of her books and they are hard to find these days.

Quartet in Autumn was published in 1977 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize that year, which doesn’t surprise me because it is horribly depressing. This story about aging and loneliness and missed connections unsettled me. Letty, Marcia, Norman and Edwin are co-workers in an office and are all near retirement age and all live alone. Their main human interaction is every day at the office with each other (though Edwin is very involved with the church). Marcia, Norman and Edwin are somewhat prickly, but Letty is kind and tactful – she is most like the traditional Pym character I’ve grown accustomed to.

Halfway through the novel Letty and Marcia retire. As Letty struggles to find meaning in her life, Marcia exhibits increasingly erratic and bizarre behavior that the others ignore or explain away. She’s the retired woman who becomes a hoarder, stops caring about her appearance and spurns all social interaction especially with the young social worker who regularly checks in on her. As the months pass by Letty continues to adjust to her retirement while Marcia slips silently into her own hazy reality.

Pym admirably addresses many themes of aging and retirement in Quartet in Autumn. From loss of identity to financial woes to loneliness to the decline of mental and physical health, Pym covers the issues that concern the retired and elderly among every generation. I respected her portrayal of these characters and their very real challenges, but I did not enjoy the book. It is incredibly sad and touched a nerve I wasn’t aware was so raw for me. This novel did not offer the familiar escape that Pym’s novels usually do, though I do think it is wise and beautiful.

How is Barbara Pym Reading Week going for you?

You can visit the hosts of BP Reading Week at My Porch and Fig and Thistle.

24 thoughts on “Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

  1. JoAnn (Lakeside Musing)

    This was my first Pym novel, and it was quite a few years before I decided to read another! I didn’t realize at the time how different her other novels would be…


    1. Oh dear I would never want this to be anyone’s first Barbara Pym! I think it should be read by people who already know her work ,admire her and can understand what she is trying to do in this novel.


  2. Alex in Leeds

    I’m intrigued by the idea of Pym writing something with a darker tone and ending actually, I enjoyed Excellent Women for the quality of the writing but wanted more of a punch at the end. Maybe this would fit me better…


    1. Alex, if you are looking for a darker tone then this would be the Barbara Pym for you. You might also try An Unsuitable Attachment – I found it to be a bit dark too.


  3. jessicabookworm

    I haven’t read anything by Pym. I am intrigued about her work because I have heard so much about her in the blogging world. I don’t think this sounds like the best novel for me to start with though. Bit too depressing!


  4. Lisa

    I read this book as well! but I didn’t find it as unsettling as you did – despite being closer in age to the quartet. It was not at all what I expected from a “Barbara Pym novel” and it’s not cheerful, but I found the characters & their stories really compelling. I do want to know what choice Letty made in the end!


  5. Miss Bibliophile

    I’m glad to read your thoughts on this one (and laughed out loud at your Booker Prize/ horribly depressing remark). I had always wondered about why the descriptions I’ve read about this one seem to emphasize the older ages of the characters, since its not as if older characters are foreign territory for Pym. In her work that I’ve read so far, those characters have generally seemed pretty hopeful to me in the way that they appreciate the small pleasures in life. It sounds like this one may show the other side of that.


    1. Great observation, Lauren! I do think the characters in this novel struggle to enjoy the simple pleasures because they are judged for it and mind. No one wants to let them choose their own happiness.


  6. Helen

    I finished reading my first Pym novel yesterday, Less Than Angels, and really enjoyed it. This one sounds very different and I think I’ll probably leave it until I’ve read a few of her other books first.


  7. cindy

    I, too, laughed at your depressing/Booker comment. I’ve been saving this book up for this week. Yes, it’s on the downbeat side, but I like to think life has changed a bit for ‘spinsters’ and single men in their 60’s living alone. Certainly, the ones I know seem to be having a much better time than this novel promises!

    Ms Pym is so clever in her characterisation. Only 60 pages in and I’m already braced for Norman’s waspish comments.

    No, it won’t take the place of any of the first six, lighter novels, but it is still refreshing to be back in Pymland, especially as it makes one’s own humdrum existence seem positively racy by comparison.


    1. I am always astonished at how different life was for retirees, spinsters, bachelors, etc. 40+ years ago. Things are so much better now – 60 isn’t even considered old anymore!
      I do love the wonderful Pym humor and observations of small hypocrisies that she is so good at describing. Her style shines even in her books that I don’t enjoy.
      Thanks for commenting!


  8. Caroline

    I was moved by The Quartet when I read it some years ago, and thank you for reminding us about it. And for the reminder about a rare treatment of older people. (I’m currently collecting examples of strongly drawn older women in fiction but not finding many.) I like Barbara Pym’s close observations of not especially remarkable women. More recently I enjoyed The Sweet Dove Died.


    1. I haven’t read The Sweet Dove Died yet, but I have it on the schedule for sometime this year. I really like reading novels about older people, too, because they aren’t portrayed very often – I enjoyed Olive Kitteridge for that reason.


  9. Charlie

    “Quartet in Autumn was published in 1977 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize that year, which doesn’t surprise me because it is horribly depressing.” – Excellent! To me the story sounded good, but then I was still smiling from what you’d just said there. I wouldn’t mind reading it for the way she included the themes, even if it’s not a nice read, per se.


    1. It is a good book, very touching and lovely, but I felt a personal aversion to it because it was just too sad for me right now. Sometimes we need sad, though, to shake us up a little.


  10. FleurFisher

    I thought this wasn’t the right book for me right now, so thank you for confirming that. I had mixed feelings when I re-read The Sweet Dove died, but it addressed ageing and loneliness as part of a broader story, so maybe you’ll like it a little more.


  11. vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas)

    I’m still laughing about that comment about the Booker prize too – brilliant. And so spot on! I really liked this book – but oh you are right about it’s unsettling nature. And all this loneliness is before the internet added to our increasing solitude from personal contact. Very depressing,but beautifully written.


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