”Life is cruel and we do terrible things to each other.”
Humphrey, a widowed antiques dealer, and his nephew James, who he is attempting to teach about the antiques trade, meet this elegant, aging beauty named Leonora Eyre at a book sale. Meeting such a woman at such a place filled Humphrey with horror. ”A book sale was certainly no place for a woman; had it been a sale of pictures or porcelain, fetching the sort of inflated prices that made headline news, or an evening sale--perhaps being televised--to which a woman could be escorted after being suitably wined and dined--that might have been another matter altogether.”
Humphrey is really a perfect match for Leonora because they both appreciate the finer things in life, objects are in many ways more important to them and certainly more reliable than people. They both understand the same rules of engagement and enjoy the simple, but luxurious aspects of society. Fulfillment comes from having things...just so.
James sees the situation a different way from his Uncle. ”James thought his uncle was making rather a fool of himself. Miss Eyre was certainly of a suitable age for Humphrey to marry, if that was what he wanted. though he had been a widower for so long now that it seemed unlikely he would wish to improve on the convenient arrangements he already had and take such a drastic step as marriage.”
The fool...marriage...at his age. Still, on paper, this potential relationship looks like an alliance that could garner that elusive trinity of a sustainable relationship: security, common interest, and mutual attraction.
Except that Miss Eyre likes James better.
Is it so crazy? She is older, granted, but she has taken care of herself, men of all ages still notice her. And James, well he is as malleable as Binx Bolling, remember him from The Moviegoer. With just the right amount of maneuvering James will do what she wants him to do.
Leonora would have made a brilliant Roman Field Commander. Her grasp of battlefield tactics are put on display as she eviscerates her rivals with cool precision; and yet, with her ultimate designs artfully concealed. Phoebe, the English Literature major, who seduced James on an excursion to the country was one such victim. James was rather confused about how a drink led to such a vigorous romp in bed, part of his Binx like behavior of just accepting what others want. I rather liked awkward Phoebe with her baggy clothes making her the spoil to Leonora’s stellar elegance. There is this scene I just have to share.”One of the village cats had come into the room and jumped up on top of the big old-fashioned radio set which Phoebe turned on, making music for herself and warmth for the animal. A symphony was being played and as Phoebe lay watching the cat she had the fancy that its spreading body was like a great empty wineskin or bladder being filled with Mendelssohn. She began to think of a poem she would write for James.”
It seems whenever James leaves Leonora’s sight he falls in bed with someone. He takes a jaunt through Europe to look at antique shops as part of his training and meets a young, well lets look a little closer, maybe not so young American named Ned. He like Phoebe is an English Literature major studying the minor poems of Keats. When he meets Leonora he is better prepared for her tactics as he is a veteran of many doomed love affairs, bedroom dramas, and the lies and manipulations that it takes to have cake and eat it too.
Ned quotes a bit of poetry to Leonora over tea. ”I had a dove and the sweet dove died;
and I have thought it died of grieving
O, what could it grieve for? Its feet were tied
With a single thread of my own hand’s weaving.”
What a civilized world these people live in threatening each other with poetry. The rest of us are such Neanderthal’s with our guns, knives, clubs, and fists.
Human behavior is explored and exposed with a grace that cloaks the wicked stab of wit and the pain of those charmed, but left in the wake of cooling desires. No one escapes without at least a few twinges of remorse, even Ned, the shallow pool swimmer, doesn’t take his final leave of Leonora (over tea of course) without a feeling of being something less than he should be. What makes this book a small masterpiece is Barbara Pym’s ability to use humor, style, and her perceptive writer’s eye to blunt the very worst of emotional circumstances. I also thought how refreshing to read a book that accepts homosexual relationships without a hint of homophobia. In 1977 Pym was named the most underrated writer of the century. I think we can change that, don’t you think, at least in the Goodreads universe.