Jane Cleveland and Prudence Bates are unlikely friends. Jane is firmly ensconced in the responsibilities of middle age as mother to a daughter preparing for university and muddling through her duties as a vicar's wife. The considerably younger Prudence, who was once taught by Jane at Oxford, fumbles through unfortunate romantic attachments to the extent that Jane feels compelled to play matchmaker.
At first glance, this seems to be pretty tame stuff, a novel that neatly constructs contrasts between the principal characters,
"Fabian liked Jane really – but it was an insult, an outrage almost, how unconscious she was of his charm, how little effort she made with her clothes – galoshes, old mackintosh, shapeless hat, the strap of her sandal pinned with a safety pin."
"Prudence looks lovely this evening, thought Jane, like somebody in a woman's magazine, carefully 'groomed,' and wearing a red dress that sets off her pale skin and dark hair."
the traditional duties of women and a rapidly changing postwar culture in which women reimagined the relationship between the sexes,
“Oh, but it was splendid the things women were doing for men all the time, thought Jane. Making them feel, perhaps sometimes by no more than a casual glance, that they were loved and admired and desired when they were worthy of none of these things - enabling them to preen themselves and puff out their plumage like birds and bask in the sunshine of love, real or imagined, it didn't matter which.”
city and country stereotypes,
“Prudence's flat was in the kind of block where Jane imagined people might be found dead, though she had never said this to Prudence herself; it seemed rather a macabre fancy and not one to be confided to an unmarried woman living alone.”
'Well, I expect it will be better than the suburbs,' said Jane. 'People will be less narrow and complacent.'
the lovely and less than lovely,
“But of course, she remembered, that was why women were so wonderful; it was their love and imagination that transformed these unremarkable beings. For most men, when one came to think of it, were undistinguished to look at, if not positively ugly. Fabian was an exception, and perhaps love affairs with handsome men tended to be less stable because so much less sympathy and imagination were needed on the woman's part?”
“Jane felt that he would write from the depths of a wretchedness that would not necessarily be insincere because its outward signs were so theatrical. Presumably attractive men and probably woman too must always be suffering in this way; they must so often have to reject and cast aside love, and perhaps even practice did not always make them ruthless and cold-blooded enough to do it without feeling any qualms.”
and the married and the unmarried.
“Prue hadn't really been in love with Fabian. Indeed, it was obvious that at times she found him both boring and irritating. But wasn't that what so many marriages were - finding a person boring and irritating and yet loving him? Who could imagine a man who was never boring, or irritating?”
But the real impact of the novel comes from its humor, the deft but unflinching touch with which Pym illustrates that the greatest contrast that occupies all of these quirky characters is the divide between what one imagined for oneself in life and what life actually yielded. Neither beauty nor intelligence can subvert the ways in which we protect ourselves from a complete self-knowledge. This is not tragic. In the pages of Pym, it simply is. Wonderfully funny and insightful.
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