A Few Green Leaves (1980)

by Barbara Pym

A Few Green Leaves was Barbara Pym’s last book, and in it she returns to the village setting of her early work. It is as soothingly uneventful as her first book, Some Tame Gazelle, and funny and wistful at the same time, like all Pym novels. It has her usual cast of spinsters, clergy, and eccentrics, but in late 1970s' England things have changed. The aristocracy has moved out of the manor house, sex is more overt, and Pym’s protagonist is a professional woman.

Emma Howick is well-educated, in her 30s, single, and from her own description, not pretty. An anthropologist, she determines that small-town life is worthy of study, so she decides to live in her mother’s cottage in Oxfordshire while observing the neighbors. These include the gentle, widowed rector, Tom; his frustrated housekeeping sister Daphne, who dreams of living on a Greek Island; and an ex-priest who now writes restaurant reviews. An old flame of Emma’s rents a cottage in the woods nearby to finish writing a book. Emma carries casseroles to him, but whether she’s resumed a relationship is as questionable to her as it is to readers.

Pym probably knew she was dying — she would succumb to breast cancer not long after she finished A Few Green Leaves. Although not generally ranked among her major works, this novel is a last demonstration of her perceptiveness, subtlety, and ability to show meaning in ordinary lives.


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