Here’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.
Another 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.
I 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.
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