An Academic Question (Virago Modern Classics) Paperback – 3 May 2012
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*Another delightful comedy of manners from Barbara Pym.
From the Back Cover
'She is the rarest of treasures; she reminds us of the heartbreaking silliness of everyday life' Anne Tyler
In a provincial university town Caro Grimstone, a dissatisfied faculty wife, becomes the unwilling accomplice to her husband Alan's ambitions. When she volunteers as a reader to a blind, esteemed anthropologist in a nursing home, Alan seizes the opportunity to steal his papers - research that could both advance his reputation while refuting the findings of a respected colleague. A delightful comedy of manners with a touch of mystery, An Academic Question is prime Barbara Pym territory.
'Authentic Pym, with the true depth of exuberance in it . . . As readable and characteristic as any in the Pym canon' John Bayley, London Review of BooksSee all Product description
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It's narrated by Caroline, wife of a university lecturer, who is inveigled by her husband into 'borrowing' some valuable old papers from the elderly gentleman she reads to, so he can use them in his thesis. Nothing much comes of it. Nothing much comes of the problems in their marriage. The characters are weak and unsympathetic (with the possible exception of Dolly who rescues hedgehogs, and on the death of one proclaims 'My golden Maeve, the ancient Irish queen', while the Swedish au pair observes 'Is dead the little hedge-pig'.)
I see some other reviewers feel this is Barbara Pym's least successful work so perhaps I'll try a different one sometime.
The novel is episodic - there's no big theme and the plot proceeds at its own pace - but the episodes are delightful. Caro Grimstone lives with her junior lecturer husband in a provincial town (maybe Bath is indicated at one point, though) and the academic question is a professional disagreement with his about-to-retire professor, a question which, if it is to be resolved, will require access to some source material belonging to an about-to-die retired missionary to whom Caro reads. Meanwhile Caro worries that her husband finds a new divorced lecturer attractive and will have an affair with her - and actually he will have an affair, but with someone else...and how will Caro respond to that....There is, then, lurking sadness and heartbreak here, alongside the laughter....
And with more liberated times, we can now see how it is for Caro to confront the woman with whom her husband has slept and the course of her thoughts on a rather wider range of life than troubles the stream of consciousness of earlier Pym first-person narrators.
This isn't quite the equal of the best Pym. But it is enormously enjoyable.
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