There are various ways of mending a broken heart, but perhaps going to a learned conference is one of the more unusual.
This was an unsettling reading experience for me, in a good way. I had only a vague idea of the story when I started, and it kept taking turns that I didn't expect. The ending took me by surprise, both with the events of the last chapters and the rather inconclusive conclusion. I think I know what happened, but I'm not sure - nor am I sure that what might seem like "happily-ever-after" endings will actually turn out that way, for more than one of the characters. I'm still mulling over that, and working out different scenarios in my mind.
In case I'm not the last to read this, there may be minor spoilers below.
The story opens at a conference for people who work in editing, of journals and scholarly books. Dulcie Mainwaring is there partly to distract herself from a broken engagement. "[It] seemed to be just the kind of thing that was recommended for women in her position - an opportunity to meet new people and to amuse herself by observing the lives of others . . ." The first new person that she meets is Viola Dace (née Violet), who hints to Dulcie that she is there mainly because of Aylwin Forbes, one of the speakers. "He and I were once...." she says. Dulcie doesn't press her for details, but she can't help noticing how very handsome Aylwin is. By the end of the conference, she's rather taken with him herself.
Dulcie lives in west London, in a large house she inherited from her parents. She does free-lance work, researching and indexing, but she must have money of her own, because she doesn't seem to work much. As soon as she gets back from the conference, she throws herself into a research project of her own: Aylwin Forbes. She spends much of the book first investigating him and his family, including the wife from whom he is separated, and then stalking them all over London. When Viola moves into a room in Dulcie's house, she joins Dulcie on her expeditions, including visits to the church where Aylwin's brother is the vicar, and the small town in Somerset where his mother owns a hotel.
I liked Dulcie from the start. She reminded me of Jane, in Jane and Prudence, both kind people, rather at loose ends, without enough to do, and lonely. Dulcie finds it "so much safer and more comfortable to live in the lives of other people - to observe their joys and sorrows with detachment as if one were watching a film or a play." She makes some tentative attempts to reach out, to move out of that safe detachment, with Viola, and with her niece Laurel, who comes to live with her while enrolling in secretarial school. Both maintain their own detachment. I was uncomfortable watching Dulcie's growing obsession with Aylwin, and even a little embarrassed at how far she would go, mixed with dread of her getting caught. I kept wishing she could make a real friend, or find a different interest. Though I was impressed with her research skills, Aylwin hardly seems worth all that effort.
While Dulcie is pursuing her research, the story briefly shifts to follow other characters, including Aylwin himself, as well as Viola and Laurel. But their stories are all intertwined, and in the end, Barbara Pym brings them together. It felt like the jumbled pieces of a puzzle each fitting neatly into place, or the way Dorothy L. Sayers describes the bells of Fenchurch St Paul coming to their places at the end of a complicated peal. I'd like to know more about how those different stories turned out, particularly Dulcie's.
Of course, I may find out in other books. Barbara Pym seems to enjoy having her characters make cameo appearances in other people's stories. This one features characters from A Glass of Blessings, which I still haven't read. I was also amused to see Some Tame Gazelle among the books that Dulcie keeps in her bathroom, "their covers now faded and buckled by steam." I did note that both she and Aylwin grew up reading odd volumes of Every Woman's Encyclopedia ("circa 1911").
Dulcie's daily cleaner, Miss Lord, tells her, "You read too much, that's your trouble." Men don't like it, she says. "'No, I don't think they do,' said Dulcie, but absently, as the world of the book began to seem the real one." I very much enjoyed my time in her world.