I finished Excellent Women during my lunch hour (okay, at my desk when no one else was in the office, but I had five pages left and was not about to leave it).
I expected to be mildly annoyed at the narrator at first. The style was nice and all, but I just knew that she was going to be a fussy spinster who is whisked away by Mr. Darcy or equivalent. I was pleasantly surprised: this book is a few weeks in the life of a 1950's "excellent woman," or a thirtysomething spinster.
Our intrepid heroine, Mildred, is Fanny Price. Or, she's the kind of woman Fanny could have been, given a small income, a means of earning, and a Cranford-like support base of other excellent women. Mildred was raised a clergyman's daughter and spends her life attempting to be a virtuous woman, occasionally scolding herself for having uncharitable thoughts about other people.
The book is filled with ordinary trials and tribulations (the men aren't helping set up the church bazaar! The neighbor fights with her husband! She wore what to church?) as the town Excellent Women operate within their own social hierarchy. Our narrator could come off as neurotic or smug within the boundaries of her virtue, but she doesn't. She occasionally and offhandedly worries that others think her above herself or nosy.
Quite frankly, I want Mildred Lathbury to be my friend. She's the single nicest heroine I've encountered in a book without being snobbish, indecisive, or wimpy in any way. She comes across as a realistic, intelligent, and dependable woman who just wants to help everyone around her and occasionally gets burnt out by the effort. Also, she doesn't think that getting married would magically solve all of her problems. Instead, she likes living alone and cherishes her space.
In short: this book is delightful. The style is charming, the characters are genuine, and the storyline is natural. It's like spending a week with the churchgoers of rural 50s England, flowers, casseroles, and tea included. It's cozy and interesting while occasionally and subtly subverting reader expectations where romantic cliches tend to flourish.
I'm taking this book home to my mom to read, then pouring a cup of tea. I have a sudden, strange craving for tea.