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A Few Green Leaves (1980)

by Barbara Pym

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
6092629,268 (3.85)1 / 93
'.an incisive and wry portrait of life in an Engish village in Oxfordshire.'
  1. 10
    Spiderweb by Penelope Lively (KayCliff)
    KayCliff: Both novels feature an unmarried woman anthropologist's settling to live in an English rural village, and observing all she finds there.
  2. 00
    Commonplace by Christina Rossetti (KayCliff)

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» See also 93 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 26 (next | show all)
I'm bumping this to four stars after re-reading the last half of the book...

In 1979, Barbara Pym began working on what would end up being her final novel, A Few Green Leaves. She was at the height of her career, after having been rediscovered by the public only two years earlier, and was for the first time in her life, if not a household name, certainly a minor literary celeb. And then, alas, cancer struck, and Pym died in January 1980, having finished the draft manuscript of the novel. It is a book to be thankful for, for this reason and others.

A Few Green Leaves has its evident strengths. Pym was by now an effortless sketcher of individual characters - drab, grey lives vigorously told, as someone once said - and she captures the nuances of small-town life well. It is also interesting to hear the narrative voice of Emma Howick acknowledging that some of these traditions are now outdated in modern Britain, and survive only in villages like these.

At the same time, this book lacks either the comic vibrancy of Pym's early novels - think [b:Crampton Hodnet|178566|Crampton Hodnet|Barbara Pym|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1347728932l/178566._SY75_.jpg|810539] or [b:Some Tame Gazelle|178572|Some Tame Gazelle|Barbara Pym|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1347763773l/178572._SY75_.jpg|1560758] - or the startling bitterness of her late masterpieces [b:The Sweet Dove Died|226980|The Sweet Dove Died|Barbara Pym|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1356450254l/226980._SY75_.jpg|810541] and [b:Quartet in Autumn|227002|Quartet in Autumn|Barbara Pym|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1386922284l/227002._SY75_.jpg|1283470]. What remains is satisfactory but occasionally, especially in the first half, rambling. One feels that Pym has decided not to tax her strength by incorporating a plot. Instead the book feels like a number of short stories scrambled and intertwined to form a novel. It is not fully formed, whether because the author did not get a chance to thoroughly revise it before her death, or because she was trying something new.

On re-reading the second half of the book though, I find a great deal of strengths. The vignettes of village life (especially a late chapter involving a power cut) are pleasant and sometimes wry. The open use of profanity and sexuality (where appropriate) shows how far the world had come since Pym began publishing her novels 30 years previously. This is still an engaging book once one delves into it, but I must admit it's one of the only Pyms where I didn't feel the urge to read chapter after chapter.

But for all that may (ever so slightly) disappoint me, it is also telling how much gentler and perhaps more sombre is village life in Pym's world now. Perhaps she herself felt like an outsider, the way that Emma does. Her ability to look beyond people must have challenged her ability to exist alongside the kinds of narrow-minded traditionalists so often profiled in her work. Emma finds herself, for example, understanding why people are worried for the village rector when his sister moves away - he himself is worried; how will he cook anything beyond fish fingers? - but she also acknowledges that across Britain men are now fending for themselves and there is something simplistic in the former view. Much like the village manor, which is now owned by a newer family who don't need to provide free picnics for the poor children because, well, there's a welfare state now, it's clear that the people here are clinging to a world, and it's a world that the author both misses and yet can't feel that sad about losing. There is warmth found in places, but it is often overwhelmed amongst the rector unsure of whether he is welcome into people's homes, the doctor's wife dissatisfied with her family's small lodgings, and the funeral mourners who only come to church for these sorts of "special events".

Pym was a minor master of the form. I hope her clear-eyed, tart, witty, small stories remain with us for a long time to come. This may not shine as brightly as some of the jewels in her collection, but is still a tribute to the skills that made her such a recognisable voice in 20th century British fiction. ( )
  therebelprince | Jun 24, 2021 |
lots of characters. funny. the first one I read by Pym, I didn't like. glad I read a 2nd one. ( )
  mahallett | Jan 11, 2021 |
One of Pym's finest. She gently riffs on Austen's Emma, but gives the story its own open-ended twist. ( )
  DrFuriosa | Dec 4, 2020 |
Emma moves into her mother's cottage in a village to write up an anthropology paper, and ponders making a study of the village society. This had some memorable characters; Adam the food critic and Daphne always pining for Greece, but Emma was harder to like. Her vacillations where Graham was concerned were disturbing - why did she feel it was her place to equip his cottage and bring him casseroles? Tom was a typically ineffectual Pym 'hero'. ( )
  pgchuis | Nov 8, 2019 |
"In her wry and incisive last novel, Barbara Pym builds with accumulating effect the picture of life in a village forgotten by time yet affected dramatically by it. History -- represented by Druid ruins and an eighteenth-century manor (and the last aristocrats who occupied it in the 1920s) -- is juxtaposed against the banalities of life in the 1970s. We encounter a classic cast of Pym characters -- the local cat-lady, widows, rectors, retirees -- as well as a new generation composed of a young doctor, a restaurant reviewer, a bearded intellectual and his wife. There is a romance, and there is a death. A Few Green Leaves is Barbara Pym's final statement on life. It is a masterwork, the culmination of her writing."
~~back cover

Barbara Pym is evidently the Seinfeld of this genre: as far as I could tell, absolutely nothing happened. Except for the death, of course, but even it was a non-event, making hardly a ripple in the mundane life of the village and the people in her circle. Even the romance didn't happen; it's only going to happen ... maybe.

I love reading about life in an English village, but this book was a non-starter for me. The characters were the sort of people who could never quite figure out what they thought or how they felt about any given situation. ( )
  Aspenhugger | Jun 25, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 26 (next | show all)
Clearly something other than plot or even the interaction of character keeps Barbara Pym's novels going and the reader gratified. For nothing much happens, and the author remains a skeptical, almost aloof, observer studying relationships with a discrimination that her anthropologists might envy. But they are relationships that never develop. Closed in their own preoccupied solitudes, these people veer away from one another like charges in an electromagnetic field. This is both comic and sad, but the self-sufficient Emmas and Catherines demonstrate that being alone can be an exacting vocation, rather than a pathetic fate, one that calls for dignity, patience, intellectural curiosity, and a sense of humor.

» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Barbara Pymprimary authorall editionscalculated
Schuman, JackieCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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For my sister Hilary
and for Robert Liddell
this story of an
imaginary village
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On the Sunday after Easter -- Low Sunday, Emma believed it was called -- the villagers were permitted to walk in the park and woods surrounding the manor.
Something was wrong with Emma's omelette this evening - the eggs not enough beaten, the tablespoon of water omitted, something not quite as it should be.
"I always love a walk in the woods," said Isobel. "We must remember that,", said Adam gallantly. "Do you see many foxes here?" Isobel asked. "Oh yes - and you can find their traces in the woods," said Daphne eagerly. "Did you know that a fox's dung is grey and pointed at both ends?" Nobody did know and there was a brief silence. It seemed difficult to follow such a stunning piece of information.
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