Excellent Women (Penguin Classics)
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110 of 117 people found the following review helpful
on November 20, 2000
Don't leap to the assumption that a book written fifty years ago about an unmarried do-gooding gentle woman would have nothing for a contemporary audience. Despite its London church parish setting well populated with the spinsterish "excellent women" of the title, Pym's book delivers sharp observations about men and women, together and apart, and society's expectations for all. Her truths are pungent a sexual revolution later.
Relevancy aside, this is a good read. Pym lays out her well-defined world much as Jane Austen does, providing a critical and always witty tour. The characters are drawn as sharply as any Austen delivered. The novel is entertaining but rewardingly complex as it probes not only gender and social mores but also asks if Mildred Lathbury, the protagonist and narrator, is choosing the life of an excellent woman or if she is saddled with it. To use a contemporary phrase, it is about having a life, and this deceivingly gentle-seeming book is asking questions that are as rugged and significant as any asked in our less regulated times.
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66 of 70 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon June 18, 2007
There are certain books that really can't be fully appreciated until you're older and can bring to them the understanding of maturity: Henry James's "major phase" novels, for example, and perhaps Jane Austen's MANSFIELD PARK. A writer whose talents completely eluded me when I was younger was Barbara Pym; her world of elderly churchgoers and celibate vicars in postwar England seemed too grim to me when I was in my early twenties, and I saw her novels as tragedies rather than as the brilliant comedies they really are. EXCELLENT WOMEN fully deserves its current reissue status in the Penguin Classics series because it really IS a twentieth-century English classic. Its title has famously come to describe a certain kind of character to which Barbara Pym thoroughly lays claim as an author, and is thus often considered the most emblematic of Pym's works (it is certainly one of the funniest).

The comic genius of the novel is not that its heroine, the respectable and virginal and shabby-genteel Mildred Lathbury, is unwanted by her society, as I misunderstood when I was in graduate school, when I first read the novel. Rather, she is TOO much in demand, and not only is of great use to the church officials who want her to shine the brass of their decaying pews, but also of the confused married neighbors in her lodgings and even the few bachelors she knows (who subtly feel her out for her interest in marrying them--overtures which she always curtails). Although Mildred is puzzled by the work of the anthropologists she meets, she is herself too much of an anthropologist ever to commit to married life (or even sharing a room with another spinster friend). Her constant self-deprecation is always offset by her unspoken understanding that her life is far too rich in its observations of others for her to subsume her ego fully into another's needs. Pym has been frequently compared to Jane Austen, and the comparisons are quite just, though it should be noted that her work is more like the more autumnal and scathing PERSUASION than the giddy exuberance of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.
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31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on September 28, 1999
Barbara Pym is an author who has gained in reputation since her death, and "Excellent Women" is the epitome of her writing. A comic novel with a delicate touch, it loses nothing by being set in the 1950s. We recognise the characters and situations. For me, the understated romance between Mildred Lathbury and Everard Bone carries echoes of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice". I defy any woman not to enjoy it.
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on January 31, 2002
All of Ms. Pym's books are excellent and worth reading over and over. Quartet in Autumn & The Sweet Dove Died are sad. All the others are humourous. About everyday life--stuff we've all been through, the people we put up with, the slights, the boredom. But through Ms. Pym's eyes, these tedious daily events are amusing set pieces. She's subtle...just describes the situation, makes a comment and lets you figure out just how funny your everyday life would be if you could stand back a little. As I said in the title of this review...her stories are like the sitcom Seinfeld: nothing ever happens, but it happens to all of us, and it's hilarious.
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42 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on October 22, 2005
This book is a window into what was perhaps a better time when such things as good manners in social interaction were held in higher esteem than now. I wondered while I read this book why it was never my good fortune to have met an "excellent woman" such as the protagonist Mildred Lathbury. Perhaps such women existed only in post war London and not in the America of the last quarter of the twentieth century if they existed at all. Such is my loss, but I can at least enjoy the carefully crafted character of Pym's women as they cope with their rather ordinary, but very real and believable lives.

Barbara Pym is not a Jane Austen, and I don't mean that negatively, as she is worthy in her own right without the comparison. She is at least as observant of her time, its people and its customs as Jane was of hers. Seen through the eyes of Mildred Lathbury, this period of less than a year's span around 1951 or so contains momentous human events such as romance and disengagement, breakup and reconciliation, old friends revisited, new friends explored, new experiences, and the hopefulness of companionship and romance to come. Mildred imagines herself to have been in love once long before and the reader is sidetracked into wondering how she came to realize that she was not in love, even as she speculates on the types of men with whom she might now come to find herself in love. But, she seems to have given up on love and become reconciled to being over thirty and likely to remain unmarried forever.

There is a sort of grayness about Mildred's existence that she recognizes with some dissatisfaction, but has come to accommodate with resignation. It is only at the end that she realizes that she might indeed be included in the painting of a greater canvas of life than she has previously known, despite her reconciliation with her apparent lot in life. The book ends, not in the usual comedy ending where the happy end is known for certain, but on a note of great hope where the reader is left with no doubt that for at least one "excellent woman" things will indeed work out very well.

This is a thoroughly delightful book and I highly recommend it for all readers with even a touch of a romantic soul.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
I happened upon this slim volume by accident the other day - and what a happy accident it turned out to be. Barbara Pym's "The Sweet Dove Died" is a novel of unrequited love - an unnatural love of an older woman for a much younger gay man. There are shades of the Tennessee Williams classic "The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone," yet the writing style is more akin to Patrick Gale's early works "The Aerodynamics of Pork" and "Kansas in August."
Pym's novels are what used to be called "comedies of manners." Her work is immediately engaging, always amusing, and quite pointed in its depiction of a woman so consumed with the appearence of perfection that she misses every opportunity for happiness.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on September 23, 2000
Ms. Lathbury is a 30-something unmarried woman in 1950's smalltown England. She is the voice of this novel, one of edgy humor, the pathos of repressed and unrealized romanticism, and an acceptance of men's lax attitude towards her without a trace of self-pity. Pym does indeed remind one of Austen, in her voicing of women in a secondary place in society, too dependent upon men and marriage, in an era now gone-by, the era of postwar England no less distant than Austen's. "Excellent women" are those "old maids" who are not very attractive physically, and are therefore - however unfairly - the half-seen nurturers of their society. The men are - each and every one - presumptuous, myopic, self-indulgent. Yet Lathbury sees them clearly but without bitterness, and without fatalism.
This is a delicately written, observant and complexly perceptive novel.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on October 8, 2001
I thought many times while reading this book -- Yes, life is like this. The narrator, Mildred Lathbury, is 30+ years old, an orphan and single in the 1950s. She leads a solitary life -- of course that doesn't stop her from being intelligent and witty and understanding. What I realized near the end of the book is what Mildred didn't notice --- that the men around her would have loved her if she had encouraged their love (but she never picked up on it) She seemed to be learning near the end...and maybe there was hope for her and Everard Bone. Either way Mildred was going to turn out o.k. Her observations about the people around her are priceless.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on March 7, 2007
It was my good luck to discover this gem of a book in the most unlikely place: a small car wash store! The title and cover drew my attention, and I bought the book on a lark. I loved every page, especially watching protagonist Mildred Lathbury's perceptions of her new and more worldly neighbors, of the church curate, and of her self-perception as one of the "excellent women" whose lives as single women are, according to the married people around her, supposed to revolve around doing good for others with "fuller" lives.

Pym's writing is smart, canny, and funny as she develops a tight story line. I enjoyed keeping company with Mildred as the story develops. At the end of the book, Pym hints strongly at expanded opportunities in Mildred's life, should she choose them. Mildred's choice will be revealed in a single line in a later book, "Jane and Prudence," which I got from the library right after finishing this book. That, too, is a very good read, even funnier in parts than "Excellent Women." -- Judy Gruen, author, "The Women's Daily Irony Supplement." ([...])
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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on December 13, 2005
Delicious would be one word - soothing would be another and then there is that little "edge" - so subtle you can hardly believe your eyes - did I mention funny? Pym is probably an acquired taste- but having once acquired a taste for her sly wit you'll be hooked. I put them (all her novels) aside and try to forget the plots; then re-read them at bedtime to relax and become a part of a more gentil and certainly less complicated world.
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