Miss Buncle's Book by D.E. Stevenson was one of the first books that I can remember becoming aware of when I started discovering book bloggers who read and write about lesser known, early-to-mid twentieth century, often female, often British writers (a very specific niche indeed). Since then, I'd always had it in the back of my mind as something I needed to get around to reading. When I noticed the cover below staring up at me from the new paperbacks table at the Barnes & Nobel in Union Square, I snapped it up, my excitement over the unexpected find only dampened by a tiny amount of guilt over the fact that I wasn't reading the pretty Persephone edition. That was really the only downside to what turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable read.
The novel is set in the small English village of Silverstream. A short train ride away from London, it's the kind of place where everybody knows everybody's business and where freshly made buns are still delivered to your doorstep every morning. Barbara Buncle, frumpy and forty-ish, is one of the most unassuming and overlooked of the villagers. In the midst of the Depression of the 1930's, she finds herself needing to supplement her dwindling income. After dismissing an ill-conceived scheme to raise hens, she settles on plan B- writing a novel under a pseudonym. Since Miss Buncle is a keen observer and can only write what she knows, she ends up with a novel that's a barely veiled version of the people and places in Silverstream (a villager named Colonel Weatherhead is turned into the fictional Major Waterfoot, etc.). Throughout her book Miss Buncle's characters behave exactly as their real-life counterparts do until The Golden Boy, an inexplicable and random pied piper figure, comes marching through the town. His presence brings clarity to and ignites the passions of Miss Buncle's characters, all of whom start behaving in extraordinary ways.
Much to Miss Buncle's surprise, her books gets published and becomes a runaway hit. Her amazement turns to dismay when her neighbors begin reading it. Recognizing themselves, a witch hunt of sorts erupts. The town becomes determined to unearth the author of the novel, never once suspecting that it could be Miss Buncle. In an ironic twist in which life starts to imitate art that imitates life, the villagers are shaken out of their usual behavior patterns and start to act in unexpected ways, just as they do in the second half of Miss Buncle's novel. In the "real" Silverstream, the disruptive role of The Golden Boy turns out to be played by Miss Buncle's book itself.
For a novel that's set in a very ordinary sort of world, Miss Buncle's Book is actually a bit mind-bending to summarize. I won't even try to explain the details of the point at which you realize that you're reading a novel about a novel about a novel. I'm sure there's some postmodern interpretation that could be made if you were so inclined, but I'd rather just focus on the fact that this was a really fun story to read. Stevenson writes in a way that's a nice blend of humor and coziness. She pokes fun at various characters without seeming mean or snide; she describes the details of the setting in a way that made me want to jump right into the book, like when Sarah Walker, the town doctor's wife, sits up late in the study waiting for him to come home, reading eating a poached egg and cup of cocoa from a tray; and I don't think it will be giving too much away to say that she manages to pull off a very satisfying ending by granting happy endings to exactly the characters you want them for.