This was a most satisfying read, full of what Barbara Pym does best: satirizing the public and private lives of England’s “excellent women.” Sophia Ainger is a vicar’s wife in a parish in a somewhat dodgy part of London. When she’s not supporting her husband’s work, she’s arranging suitors for her younger sister Penelope. There’s a comforting predictability to church work:
Ianthe Broom, Daisy Pettigrew, Sister Dew, and one or two others whose names she could never remember, now sat down round the table and began to discuss the final arrangements for the bazaar, which had always been exactly the same and always would be, except that from one year to another a pint more or less of milk might be ordered for the teas. (p. 53)
Sophia is also slightly obsessed with her cat, Faustina, who is always in the background engaging in typical feline behavior:
Her tone was a little agitated for she had also just seen Faustina mount the refreshment table and pick her way delicately among the dishes of cakes and savouries, sniffing the air, ready to pause and pounce when she came upon something that took her fancy. (p. 60)
Sophia finds sympathetic company in Daisy Pettigrew and her brother Edwin, who run a cattery. But when conversation lags or gets awkward, Sophia fills the gap by comparing Faustina to various humans, or wondering aloud what Faustina is doing at that moment. This never seems to help matters, but it made for amusing reading.
Then there’s Ianthe Broom, a 30-something unmarried daughter of a curate. She works in a library and recently moved into the parish. Most consider her past her prime, but Sophia is concerned about her competing with Penelope for male attention. Ianthe is oblivious to all of this; she’s not looking for a mate, and values her independence. She is both surprised and flattered when a male colleague begins paying attention to her. But is he suitable? Or will others judge her?
A church-sponsored trip to Rome puts everyone out of their element. This heightens anxieties, but new experiences also offer opportunities for self-discovery. Ianthe and Penelope both return to England with a better understanding of what they want from life and their relationships.
Pym’s world is familiar to anyone who has ever been involved in church committees, and she simultaneously respects and pokes fun at this slice of society. Sophia’s “crazy cat lady” personality made me laugh out loud on several occasions. And so, for that matter, did Faustina (especially since I had a cat in my lap most of the time when I was reading this book)!
I’ve read most of Barbara Pym’s books, and enjoyed them all. An Unsuitable Attachment is now one of my favorites.