The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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December 1, 2018

Hot milky drinks and boiled eggs

... it's easy to see why she occupied such a relatively obscure niche for so long. Barbara [Pym] specialized in a minor-key world located well back from fiction's cutting edge, with a gentle stream of irony running quietly below the surface. Her mild-mannered heroines are often found musing on their favorite lines from Anglican hymns or making Ovaltine at moments of late night crisis. When Barbara sets a scene in a bedroom, there's generally a book of Victorian poetry nearby and a nice cup of tea. ('Life's problems are often eased by hot milky drinks.') Yet these are women who can skewer a narcissistic male with wit so deft he barely notices, and their hilarious, finely tuned perceptions light up every page. Her admirers regularly evoke Jane Austen, and she shares territory with Anthony Trollope as well; but she was up against a postwar literary canon that didn't have a lot of patience with Ovaltine. Critics seemed embarrassed to praise her work even when they loved it. Reviewing Barbara's second novel, John Betjeman said many people would surely find it 'tame,' what with all the church bazaars and the the boiled eggs. He added, almost apologetically, 'To me it is a perfect book.'
. . .

      Barbara was mystified when people talked about the unhappy lives of the women she invented. One reason she loved them was for the pleasure they took in all aspects of the ordinary. She herself went through life that way, with an  unlimited capacity to be fascinated bu whatever passed in front of her. ... But perhaps the most overlooked theme of her novels --the motif that tells us again and again that these are women with a passion for life -- is the delight they take in food. Intensely curious herself about what people were eating, whether they were characters in books or real people sitting across the table from her, Barbara was always disappointed when novels and memoirs left out the culinary details. Hence she made a point of embedding them in her own fiction. Bad food, good food, other people's food, the food on their own tables. Barbara's narrators are captivated by all of it.  How could so many discerning critics miss this glorious proclamation of faith?

from What she ate:  six remarkable women and  the food
hat tells their stories, by Laura Shapiro


JaneGS said...

Must get this book! Really enjoyed reading about Pym. Side story: my mom is in assisted living (at 95) and lent a Barbara Pym to a friend, the friend (in her 80s) now has a new favorite author and my mom asked me to pick up another one for her to give to her friend for Xmas. My mom always loves her Ovaltine just before bed :)

Audrey said...

Hi, Jane,
That's a wonderful side story! I've never had Ovaltine but I'm tempted to try it. :)

JoAnn said...

Both of these passages made me smile... and I've never tried Ovaltine either! :)

Vintage Reading said...

Can't beat a boiled egg! Not tasted Ovaltine in years but my mum used to buy it.

Karen K. said...

So much food in Barbara Pym! I actually bought the Barbara Pym cookbook, though I've yet to try any of the recipes. And I have only one Pym left before I've finished all her works (except her memoir & letters). I may try to squeeze it in by the end of the year as it's fairly short and I'm way behind on my Goodreads challenge.

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