Sunday, July 6, 2014

An unusual cure for a broken heart

No Fond Return of Love, Barbara Pym

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.


  1. I love Barbara Pym even though I've only read three of her novels so far. (Excellent Women is my favorite with Jane and Prudence a close second.) I think, after reading your post, that this particular Pym novel has moved up to the top of my Pym reading list. Thanks for another great post!

  2. Lark, I've only read four myself - and Excellent Women is my favorite too! I hope you enjoy this one. I can't decide which to read next.

  3. I can't believe it was only last year that I read Pym for the first time -- so many missed years of reading pleasure! This one sounds gorgeous. (My favourite is currently Excellent Women too.)

  4. I've read five Pyms so far, but since this isn't one of them, I just skimmed your review. I'm ready for Pym number 6 now!

  5. You're definitely not the last person to read this! I'm ashamed to say I've still only read one Barbara Pym novel, Less Than Angels. I want to read Excellent Women next, as everyone recommends it so highly, but I'll look forward to reading this one eventually too.

  6. vicki, I first read her more than 20 years ago, when I decided she was too slow & depressing for me. I can only blame the callowness of youth! So I've been missing out for too long as well.

    JoAnn, I still have several on the TBR shelves, but I know she isn't an author to be rushed.

    Helen, I think I added Less Than Angels to the stacks after reading your review!

  7. I am just about to embark on my first Barbara Pym as 'Jane and Prudence' is coming up as a book group selection next week. I am really pleased as she is someone I have long wanted to read and now I have no excuse not to make the time to do so.

  8. I had to have a little break from Pym after Excellent Women - because I couldn't imagine reading any of her other books without thinking of it as a lesser work - but I think it may be time to try another book and I do like the sound of this one.

  9. Alex, I'll be interested to see what you make of her. I did enjoy Jane & Prudence!

    Jane, I think that Excellent Women is her Lucy Carmichael :) It's certainly the standard against which I measure her other books.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!