Wilmet Forsyth is a bored housewife in 1950s England. She and her husband Rodney have no children, and he takes her for granted, like part of the furniture. So Wilmet looks for stimulation elsewhere, and finds it, in a way, in the life of her church. Specifically, she takes a keen interest in the lives of three unmarried priests and their male housekeeper. She also joins her mother-in-law in taking Portuguese lessons from Piers Longridge, the attractive brother of her friend Rowena. This is yet another idle activity: Wilmet has no need to learn the language, but it fills up otherwise empty time. The only real excitement in her life comes when she finds herself the object of Piers’ attention, and Rowena’s husband Harry begins flirting with her. Rodney is oblivious, which gives Wilmet considerable freedom, but dampens her excitement as well.
Readers experience the story through Wilmet’s narration, which is rather unfortunate since she is insufferable. Pym makes this clear early on, when Wilmet says, “I was pleased at his compliment for I always take trouble with my clothes, and being tall and dark I usually manage to achieve some kind of distinction.” (p. 5) Later, when a church member is seriously ill, she hopes to make herself useful: “I suppose I had imagined myself busy in a practical way — cooking meals or running errands, even being what people call a tower of strength.” (p. 107) Wilmet is completely serious, but this is typical Pym humor. Her characters are always well-drawn, their foibles obvious and amusing. I enjoyed her digs at Wilmet, and her portrayal of certain minor characters, such as the housekeeper Mr. Bason and Piers’ flatmate, Keith.
However, it was difficult for me to get over my dislike for WIlmet, and I didn’t care much about resolving the conflict that stemmed from her idle flirtations. In the end, this was a respectable read but not my favorite Pym.