I finally, FINALLY read my first Barbara Pym novel — and it was her first novel, too: Some Tame Gazelle. Although Pym is a favorite of several of the bloggers I read, I first heard about her books when I was in college. A friend and her mother were addicted to her books, but I never picked one up. They liked the books, they told me, because they were these stories about quaint English village life, yet they were subtly funny.
Some Tame Gazelle proved to be all that. Belinda and Harriet are spinster sisters who share a house in a small village. Belinda is dowdy, timid, and self-doubting, yet has been resignedly in love with the local (married) archdeacon for more than thirty years. She knows it will never come to anything, so it is almost an indulgence. Her sister, however, is an overweight fashionista who fusses and fawns over each new curate and turns down regular marriage proposals from a devoted count. The loose plot surrounds the arrival of a new curate and the visit of a bishop. It’s not much really. The book is more character sketches of these sisters and their relationships.
I kept thinking the whole time as I read — isn’t Pym just a bit mean in her skewering of people’s weaknesses and foibles? I would have been a bit afraid to be her friend! Still, she often made me laugh out loud, like when Belinda ridiculously noted that the “Ovaltine had loosened her tongue.” But other times, I found Belinda’s silly worries and ruminations so sadly amusing. Still, as a reader I liked Belinda and identified with her in some ways. Maybe it’s more that Pym’s humor is her way of reminding us to be compassionate about others’ weaknesses as we all have them.
I had a chance to speak with my Pym-loving friend while in the process of writing this post, and she told me that Pym was just nineteen when she wrote Some Tame Gazelle. As she pointed out, Pym’s insight into a much older person’s mind is quite remarkable. It was serendipity that I started with Pym’s first novel–I look forward to reading more and will do so with an eye to seeing how her insights of people change, if they do at all, as she matures.
Another funny lady writer I’ve had on my iPad recently is Maria Semple. I listened to Today Will Be Different as an audiobook.
This book takes place in one day in the life of Eleanor Flood, a most impetuous character. Eleanor, stuck in a forty-something parenting/partnering rut of generally inappropriate behavior, embarks on a series of wild escapades tracking down her MIA surgeon husband. A ton of flashbacks fill us in on their relationship and Eleanor’s back story, especially that involving her beloved but estranged sister Ivy.
I suppose it’s unfair to compare this book with Bernadette…but what the hell. I loved Bernadette. I loved the structure, written as a series of emails and other documents, and I loved the quirky and marvelously impetuous Bernadette herself. In this new book, I feel like Semple is trying to put the pieces that made Bernadette such a success together in a new way. Instead, they are both too much like Bernadette and they don’t fit as neatly. Like Bernadette, Eleanor is a frustrated creative caught up in mommying and not creating (and in both novels, the kids go to the same elementary school). Both their husbands are top-drawer professionals (Microsoft genius vs. Seattle Seahawks orthopedic surgeon) and rather absent in partnering and parenting because they are so preoccupied with their careers. Both characters have remarkably resilient children despite their wackadoodle ways. Both reach a crisis point involving themselves and their understanding spouses, which finally leads to resolution. While this sounds like such similarity should be a good thing, I was looking for something new and Eleanor wasn’t Bernadette nor was she something new.
One significant difference in the stories is Eleanor’s relationship with her sister Ivy. In the briefest of summary, Ivy marries the mysterious and controlling scion of an old New Orleans family. He’s the leader of a krewe and follows a rigid code of social behavior that seems stuffy, antiquated, controlling, and just plain foreign to Eleanor. She and Ivy become estranged. This whole part of the book was so odd. I felt like Semple struggled to come up a with a new idea so she took the story of the Flood sisters (new) and tried to graft it into her previous success (the old Bernadette story bones). It didn’t work for me. The old square-peg-in-a-round-hole effect.
But Semple is funny! Like Pym, she sees compassionately and humorously into mind of her characters, and this carried me through the book. But rather than English village spinsters, Semple’s characters are a certain type of upper middle-class white woman with first-world problems — in Seattle. I sound disparaging there, but I will seek out whatever Semple writes next, I just hope she finds some fresh new material for her considerable talents.
Some Tame Gazelle
ebook personal copy
Today Will Be Different
3 thoughts on “Funny Ladies: Pym & Semple”
I’m catching up on old blog posts but somehow I missed this one. I adore Barbara Pym – haven’t read all of her novels yet but I’ve read this one and it’s so good. I didn’t know she was just 19 when she wrote it! She’s become one of my favorite authors. So slyly funny, and also unexpectedly weighty at times. I’m sorry the Semple didn’t quite live up to expectations for you. I enjoyed her first one and will try her latest sometime, but I’m not dying to read it.
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Yes, Miss Pym is sly–good word–and so very insightful of human character. I have two more by her, so higher on the TBR they go. Read the Semple when you are book-bored sometime (like that is ever going to happen!).
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I was going on hearsay — turns out Pym was 37 when Some Tame Gazelle was published. Should’ve done my research….
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