Quartet in Autumn

  • Title: Quartet in Autumn
  • Author: Barbara Pym
  • Publisher: Pan Macmillan
  • Publication Date: 1977
  • Genre: Fiction, British Literature
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Quartet in Autumn follows four coworkers in their 60s, near or at retirement: Marcia, Letty, Norman, and Edwin. They work at a nondescript office, doing work that doesn’t seem important or perhaps, even necessary.

Marcia and Letty have retired and are thrown a simple and unassuming retirement party at work, after which they go to lead their news lives as retirees.

The thing with the quartet, though, is that none of them have significant others, they have 0-1 friends each, and they don’t live that close to family. They’re loners, lonely, and lonesome. By nature of their age and their work, they interact superficially with each other at work, but past that, they see each other as less than friends, but not quite only colleagues. They’re more than acquaintances, but couldn’t just pop into each other’s home for a visit. The one time the four of them decide to meet up at a cafe was a somewhat stilted, though pleasant enough lunch, but one bereft of true warmth and friendship.

“Four people on the verge of retirement, each one of us living alone, and without any close relative near – that’s us.” 

With an exploration of human social needs, and a darker tone embedded in what it’s like to be lonely and pitied, Quartet in Autumn left me distressed. I felt a dread throughout the book, not one of horror or morbidness, but more a dread built out of the fear that I could end up like one of the quartet.

Letty at least tries, with dressing up and making herself look presentable, going shopping, and visiting her one friend, Marjorie, in the countryside. But Norman is a curmudgeon of sorts, who only visits with his brother-in-law out of a sense of duty, though I do think he secretly enjoys the visits as a social treat. Edwin seems to have a sense of wanting to connect, but being afraid to reach out to others, perhaps out of fear of rejection. He participates much in church services and does have an acquaintance-friend in a pastor, at least. Marcia seems to be a lost cause – she’s curmudgeonly, a hoarder of tin foods, plastic bags, and milk bottles, and doesn’t try much to connect with others. This bunch seems to mostly exist, rather than live for anything beyond routine.

The book has a solemn feel to it, reminiscent of autumn, where life seems to slow down, color bursts, then fades, and winter is coming to snatch the last remaining color out of your life. I wanted to put down this book a number of times, not because it’s poorly written, but because it’s so well-written. It stirred too much of that dread I mentioned, and made me concerned that maybe, just maybe, I could end up like any one of the four if I didn’t have friends later in life. It made me determined to reach out more, to spend more time with others rather than seeking the solitude I so often crave.

Quartet in Autumn left me wondering: what is life if not a life lived for connecting, learning, sharing, and growing with others? Is solitude with the occasional social interaction enough?

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