A month ago I came across an article in New Yorker called When Barbara Pym Couldn’t Get Published . Barbara Pym was a novelist of some modest success. She had published six books 1950-1961 before her editor dropped her quite suddenly in 1963. She had become old-fashioned. According to the article, Pym’s world is
..less a realm of hope and glory than one of modesty and mild deprivation. The “boiled chicken smothered in white sauce” that’s served to the new curate provides the same nutritional mortification as the powdered eggs on offer from a London restaurant after the war, or the tinned beans preferred by a working spinster decades after rationing has ended. There is always Ovaltine before bed. 
Anyway, 1963 the almost 50-year old Barbara Pym was forced into literary retirement for roughly 15 years.
However, she did continue to write books, books that were not published. By 1974, she had moved with her sister. And then, then she wrote Quartet in Autumn, about the four office workers close to retirement, all single, with undescribed and probably growingly irrelevant jobs. The very quartet, Norman, Edwin, Marcie, and Letty all have their own peculiarities masked as routines. (We do develop them as we age, you know.)
Edwin and Marcie live in their own houses whereas Norman and Letty live in bedsits. Edwin is a widow with one adult child and a grandchild. He is an avid churchgoer and knows every little detail there is to know about the Church Year; he also visits different churches for Services. That is his life.
Marcie lives alone in a house after her mother and cat died. She is a hoarder of milk bottles (what is there is war and bottles are scarce?) and tinned food. She does not eat much, though.
Norman’s sister had died but he visits his brother-in-law when he is in a hospital. Norman is a bit restless soul but his restlessness means he sometimes takes a bus somewhere in London.
Letty has a plan to move with her best and only friend Marjorie when she retires from her jobs. She and Marjorie had known each other since 1930s and Letty feels she has always been one step behind her. Marjorie, though, married, and is already a widow. Letty remained a spinster. And maybe more than the others, she still longs for something; she is not quite content to live a static existence in a bedsit. Bedsitters to me have always been young and restless souls, like in Soft Cell’s Bedsitter . When reading Quartet in Autumn, though, I realised that in my travels I have probably met with several retired persons lodging in Bed and Breakfast places who are, in fact, such bedsitters.
Barbara Pym belongs to the same school as Elmore Leonard: she has discarded all the boring parts. That is why Quartet in Autumn is gripping. I found myself investing a ton of emotion to the foursome. The writing is subtle, low key, and vivid. It sounds like a contradiction.
[Letty] had always been an unashamed reader of novels, but if she hoped to find one which reflected her own sort of life she had come to realize that the position of an unmarried, unattached, ageing woman is of no interest whatever to the writer of modern fiction.
In the book there will be a tragedy but there will be optimism, too. If you are going to read only more book this year (as if …), then read this!
P.S. Quartet in Autumn gives me positively heavy vibes of Richard Strauss’s Vier Letze Lieder – among his very final compositions –, and of the last song, Im Abendrot (“The Sunset”), in particular. My favourite version is by the American soprano Jessye Norman, conducted by Kurt Masur . Whenever I hear the hauntingly beautiful last two minutes I feel how wonderful life is.