What happens to people as they grow older in a society that does not value the elderly? This is the critical question Barbara Pym addresses in her novel, Quartet in Autumn. She takes us into the lives of four aging co-workers on the brink of retirement; they are no longer of use to anyone and their department will be phased out as soon as they leave the company. Marcia, Letty, Edwin, and Norman are all alone, without friends or relatives to care for them in their later lives. Each of them is terribly lonely, yet they are too stubborn and ashamed to turn to one another for friendship.
The novel is moving, and sometimes downright scary. Indeed, Pym shows us that such a fate could easily belong to anyone in today's society. She makes it readily apparent that the resources and aid available to the elderly are insufficient. Few people truly care what happens to those who are no longer of any great use to the modern world. It is a bleak prospect, and this book serves as an important warning. The book is also hopeful, however. Ultimately the main characters do manage to reach out to one another, and this is heartwarming. It shows us the value in cultivating relationships with others.
I read Quartet in Autumn for a women's studies course, and while it is not particularly exciting or enthralling, it is quite thought-provoking. It's an easy, short read (roughly 200 pages), and uses plain, to-the-point language. Pym really pares it down to the issues at hand and throws in no extraneous fluff. I would recommend this work to just about anyone (regardless of age - it's message is equally important to the old and young alike). It raises awareness of a very important, yet seldom looked at aspect of the social world of today.