A Year in Reading: Emma Rathbone

December 2, 2010 | 2 books mentioned 6 2 min read


coverHere’s a book that really surprised me this year: Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. It fulfilled a need for British postwar spinster fiction I didn’t know I had. The narrator is Mildred Lathbury, an unmarried women in her (Stop. The. Presses.) thirties, whose life is upended when a dashing young couple moves into her apartment building. Mildred is essentially really kind, but in possession of such understated wit and starched intelligence that it’s endlessly fun to see the world through her eyes as she gets entangled in her neighbors’ romantic intrigues.

coverAnother book I loved was Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers. It’s a mystery set at Oxford University and follows Harriet Vane and the irrepressible Lord Peter Wimsey as they try to unravel the meaning behind a series of obscene and threatening notes someone has been leaving around Shrewsbury College. Harriet struggles with her attraction to Peter and her desire to remain independent, and actually there’s a lot of wry commentary about just that—the pressure to marry and make house and the desire to get an education and contribute to society. Also, it’s great to read about Oxford in the thirties because it just seems so different from here.

coverI guess I’m on a U.K. kick. Another book I loved this year was In the Woods by Tana French. Also a mystery, it’s set outside of Dublin and busts out of the gate with this premise—three kids go missing in the woods, only one emerges, he’s got blood in his shoes and can’t remember a thing about what happened. This is one of those books that will make you forget the water’s boiling. It’s impossible to put down. French combines prismatic writing with a kick-ass plot and makes it look easy.

More from a Year in Reading 2010

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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's first novel, The Patterns of Paper Monsters, came out this year.


  1. I know this is a little pedantic but I’m not sure the Irish would appreciate you including Tana French’s In the woods in your ‘U.K. kick.’

  2. Enough praise cannot be lavished on In The Woods. Rob Ryan is one of the best-drawn unreliable narrators I’ve ever encountered. And the prose! And the evocation of Ireland before and during their economic boom. A real treat, that book.

  3. Anyone who enjoys Excellent Womenshould definitely keep going with Barbara Pym. She’s got at least half a dozen other novels as good, and even her three or four lesser novels are well worth reading. Her understated comedy is wonderfully effective.

  4. Thank-you so much for putting me onto Barbara Pym. Excellent Women is set to become my annual pre-Christmas treat to read. Wonderful, classic British humour.

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