Return to Pym-land: Less Than Angels

Title: Less Than Angels
Author: Barbara Pym
Published in 1955

Plot summary from Goodreads: This classic novel holds the mirror up to human nature and the battle between the sexes as it explores the love lives of a group of anthropologists

Catherine Oliphant writes for women’s magazines and lives comfortably with anthropologist Tom Mallow—although she’s starting to wonder if they’ll ever get married. Then Tom drops his bombshell: He’s leaving her for nineteen-year-old student Deirdre Swan. Though stunned by Tom’s betrayal, Catherine quickly becomes fascinated by another anthropologist, Alaric Lydgate, a reclusive eccentric recently returned from Africa. As Catherine starts to weigh her options she gradually realizes who she is and what she really wants.

With its lively cast of characters, Less Than Angels is an incisive social satire that opens a window onto the insular world of academia. It’s also a poignant and playful riff on the messy mating habits of humans and the traits that separate us from our anthropological forebears—far fewer than we may imagine.

It’s been a few months since I read this – I never got around to writing the post about it and now I’ve forgotten most of what I had to say! This is the third Pym that I’ve read – my first was Excellent Women, which I loved, and then second was A Quartet in Autumn, which was much darker in tone. I would put Less Than Angels in the middle, between them. I read it as a buddy read with some friends on Goodreads, and it generated some lively discussion.

The thing that I like about Pym, that this book does really well, is her somewhat rueful examination of a very specific type of British woman. Less Than Angels focuses on Catherine Oliphant, a young woman who is a writer, and who is in a relationship with an anthropologist named Tom, who has been away in the field. He is very scholarly and dismissive and of her accomplishments, and she accepts this attitude as well-warranted. She is waiting for him to propose. Instead of proposing, he takes up with a nineteen year old named Deirdre.

I’d like to say that Tom’s ridiculousness and Catherine’s acceptance of it are things of the past, but I was young in the 1980’s and many of these same attitudes of male entitlement prevailed at that time, as well. I can’t speak to what’s happening today, because I’ve been married to a wonderfully supportive man for two and a half decades, and I’ve raised a son who I believe I have imbued with a sense that his maleness doesn’t entitle him to anything. But, I digress a bit.

Pym’s books are wonderfully character driven, and she holds a microscope up to their behaviors.

It is surely appropriate that anthropologists, who spend their time studying life and behavior in various societies, should be studied in their turn,” says Barbara Pym.

There is a gentle sort of mockery in Pym’s attitudes towards her characters. I get the sense that she both likes them, but also that she sees their foibles and occasionally inexplicable behaviors. It reminds me of the attitude that many families have towards their own parents/siblings – proprietary, but still clear-eyed about their failings.

I have a few more Pyms in my possession – Jane and Prudence and Some Tame Gazelle, that I plan to read next year.

There Came Both Mist And Snow by Michael Innes

Title: There Came Both Mist And Snow
Author: Michael Innes
Published in 1940

Goodreads Summary: It’s coming on Christmas, and Arthur Ferryman is headed to his ancestral home, Belrive Priory. Looking forward to a peaceful holiday, Arthur’s serenity is quickly interrupted by a horde of his cousins brandishing revolvers. Shooting, it seems, is their hobby du jour.

This ancient estate has remained unchanged for centuries. As the area is invaded by neon signs, textile factories, and smells from the brewery, Belrive Priory has timelessly stood its ground. But when the family learns that their cousin Basil intends to sell the estate, fault lines begin to appear.

Furtive glances, cryptic rumours, and clandestine meetings abound. A secret family quarrel and anticipation of the mysterious Mr X’s arrival keep everyone on their toes, and it seems none of the trigger-happy relations can be trusted when one of the party is found shot.

With Arthur harbouring secrets and a few grudges of his own, will Inspector Appleby be able to crack this case before any further ‘accidents’ transpire or will the shooter finally hit his mark?

Every year after Thanksgiving, I engage in a little festive cheer by reading a golden age Christmas mystery or two. Sometimes they are rereads – for example, I nearly always reread Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and I often reread Envious Casca (republished as A Christmas Party) by Georgette Heyer. Both of them will be getting rereads this year.

However, in this glorious time of ebooks, when small publishers everywhere deliver previously out-of-print mysteries to readers, I can always find a few that are new to me. I’ve been meaning to read this one for a few years now – it’s technically book 6 in the Sir John Appleby series. I feel no need to read golden age mystery series in order, however, so this was the first that I have read.

And, hoooboy, was this one a disappointment. To start with, there is precious little Christmas happening here. Yes, the book ostensibly takes place in the context of a Christmas house party, but it could honestly have been set any time. It just wasn’t Christmassy.

Then we move onto the characters, who were pretty universally unlikeable, the narrator most of all. A major mystery – to me at least – was why hadn’t anyone murdered him?

And then, the solution. It felt like the author painted himself into a corner, had to get himself out of it, so he came up with the most cockamamie, silly, and frankly incredible explanation he could come up with to explain what happened. Erm. Nope.

So, bottom line, this one was a total bust for me. Not sure if I will give Innes another chance to impress, or just cut my losses and move on to – hopefully – better books.