Saturday 5 January 2013

An Academic Question by Barbara Pym

I think I may have mentioned that I'm a big fan of Barbara Pym novels. Virago, bless them, have been reprinting the thirteen novels Pym wrote in her lifetime, so now I've had the chance to catch up on a few that I'd not come across before. 
    One of these is An Academic Question, which was published posthumously. Pym never thought it would be published at all, as when she wrote it in 1971, she was very much out of fashion. She thought it too 'cosy' to have any chance of acceptance and it was left as a draft. It was years later that her friend, Hazel Holt, tidied up the various drafts and notes into a publishable manuscript.
    An Academic Question is narrated by Caro Grimstone, whose husband, Alan, is an anthropology lecturer at an English provincial university.  Caro is feeling jaded by her lack of fulfillment as a wife and mother when she takes up the offer to read to an invalid at a retirement home. This Mr Stillingfleet happens to be an expert anthropologist himself, with a chest full of notes he refuses to allow anyone to see, including Alan's head of department. Spotting an opportunity to further his career, Alan steals some of the old boy's research and the rest of the novel follows the moral dilemmas this action throws Caro's way. On top of all this, she is concerned about her husband's interest in an attractive colleague, Iris Horniblow.
    Caro receives plenty of advice from well-meaning friends, including the spectacular mother and son duo, Kitty and Coco, who once led a charmed life on a Caribbean island, and Kitty's sister, Polly who keeps a rundown second-hand shop and has a soft spot for hedgehogs. Dry humour sets the tone for the story, which follows Caro's awkward dealings with academics and librarians, until a series of chance happenings leads to a sensible resolution.
    An Academic Question is a delightful comedy of manners with the odd 'laugh-out-loud' moment. As Anne Tyler so nicely put it on the back cover, Pym is 'the rarest of treasures; she reminds us of the heartbreaking silliness of everyday life.'

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