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16th February
2009
written by Steph
This isn't the edition I read, although my cover was nearly about as ugly!

This isn't the edition I read, although my cover was about nearly as ugly!

Some of you may have heard of Barbara Pym, but more likely than not, many of you probably haven’t.  This would be in keeping with the fact that she was once named by two separate individuals on the Times Literary Supplement as the most underrated writer of the 20th century (this was back in 1977, when she was still alive and writing, though had spent many of those years in obscurity and incapable of getting her works published).  Often called the Jane Austen of her day for her biting social criticism and wry humor, I felt it was about time for me to get familiar with Ms. Pym.  After all, I’ve previously revealed that even a haphazard comparison to Austen is generally enough to pique my interest. Of course, having decided to read something of Pym’s turned out easier said than done.  For many years her books were out of print and I had no luck finding her at my local Borders.  Once again, McKay’s came to my rescue, as they had not one, not even two, but something like six or seven of her books on hand.  I have no idea where they got them from, but I was elated to see they had in fact found them somewhere.  For those of you who decide you’d like to check her out, you can now turn to Amazon for all your Barbara Pym needs (or if not all, then most of them…). I picked No Fond Return of Love on a bit of whim.  I had no idea which book to start with, so this one seemed as good as any.  Set in the 1960s, the story revolves largely around Dulcie Mainwaring, a spinster in her 30s, who works as an indexer in academic publishing.  She has had her engagement called off with her fiancé, Maurice, and decides to attend an academic conference, where she winds up meeting Viola Dace, another single young woman, as well as Aylwin Forbes, a noted academic writer.  Dulcie falls head over heels for Aylwin (a feeling Viola shares, mind you), and sets out to discover as much about the man and his life as possible.  There you have the basic premise of what I ultimately found to be a very silly story. I could see how comparisons between Austen and Pym could be made on one level – their novels can both be viewed as products of and commentary on the society of their respective times, and neither shied away from making sport of their characters should they deserve it – but I felt that Pym’s work (at least this one) had a very different tone from Austen’s and was also substantially fluffier.  As much as Austen’s writing can have a light-hearted character to it, I do think that she was ultimately concerned with writing serious novels.  I felt that Pym’s work came across as farcical and I had a hard time taking any of the characters serious; to me, they seemed more caricatures than characters.  Indeed, I think that if I had approached No Fond Return of Love from the perspective of it being a satire (much like Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm), I would have enjoyed it a good deal more.  Instead, I felt as though I was supposed to treat some very silly and shallow characters as though they were not in fact silly and shallow.  This was a problem for me. Let me give you some concrete examples.  The so-called “hero” that is offered up to us fairly early on in the form of Aylwin Forbes, is really nothing of the kind.  He has recently been left by his wife for his philandering ways, and swiftly sets out to find himself another wife who is several decades younger than himself.  In fact, he soon has designs for Dulcie’s 17-year old niece, while he himself is 47 years old.  At no time is it clear why Dulcie would or could love such a vain, foolish man, but having him ultimately decide to woo her is tantamount to the “what if?” scenario in which Jane Austen decided to persuade the reader that after revealing all of Wickham’s gross flaws that he was indeed the man for Lizzie Bennett.  Of course, I wouldn’t say that Dulcie is Elizabeth Bennett by any means – perhaps she’s more of a Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey (a novel that Pym references near the conclusion of her own).  Rather than being spirited and opinionated, I found her rather obsequious and simple, more interested in observing other people's lives rather than living her own.  I thought her foolishness was almost on par with Aylwin’s, given that after having met him the one time at the conference, she becomes obsessed with learning all about his life, going so far as to infiltrate his family life so as to gain more insight into him (all the while pretending as though she doesn’t know Aylwin at all).  Given that Aylwin has essentially no personality traits to recommend himself to anyone, Dulcie is pretty much only enamored with him because of his striking good looks.  Ack!  It was all so superficial and icky.  I just didn’t know if I was supposed to respond to any of these characters in earnest, and it was completely beyond me as to how I was to root for Dulcie when Aylwin was her desired prize.  Certainly I get that one of the themes throughout the novel is how love can make an “unsuitable” match suitable and who’s to account for love anyhow, but I still felt incapable of stepping into Dulcie’s shoes on this one. All this being said, I did enjoy Pym’s moments of wit and sly derision, and I think she did have a very playful and clever pen.  There were some wonderful one-liners and I appreciated the moments of clarity during which certain characters appeared (rightfully) bemused by the absurd actions of those around them.  I think part of the reason I wasn’t able to embrace this novel full on is really a result of my own expectations and preconceptions going in.  Although I’m not exactly chomping at the bit to read another Barbara Pym novel any time soon, I think that if I were to do so, I would be in a position to better appreciate it.  Her novels would be perfect for someone looking for something a little bit outlandish, and not all too serious.  While reading No Fond Return of Love, I found myself craving mugs of tea sipped alongside pieces of toast with honey.  Ultimately, I felt this novel lacked the elegance and the emotional impact of a Jane Austen novel, but it was a diverting read. Rating: 3.5 out of 5

10 Comments

  1. 02/17/2009

    I’ve been curious about Barbara Pym for quite some time, especially because I know a few other book bloggers were reading her work recently. I think I’ll try to find a copy of her novel Excellent Women, I believe its the one I’ve heard the most about. I suspect I will avoid No Fond Return of Love 🙂 since it doesn’t sound like a book for me. It’s never any fun when we’re expecting something very different…

  2. 02/17/2009

    Thanks for the comment! After reading this Pym, I did a bit of blog sleuthing and it does sound as though Excellent Women may be her best known book, and also her best appreciated. I think I would still be up for giving it a shot one day, because overall, I didn’t dislike No Fond Return of Love, it was just a very different book than what I had expected. I hate when my expectations are so thoroughly confounded (except, of course, when I love it because the book that is doing the confounding is so very awesome…)! Anyway, I will be curious to see if Excellent Women strikes a different tone, or if it’s in a similar vein. I think if it’s different, I will be more intrigued by Pym.

  3. 02/17/2009

    I have a copy of A Few Green Leaves on my shelf that I picked up at library sale, but I have not read it. A few months ago I had come across a community of book lovers who thought Barbara Pym was all the rage, which is one of the reasons I picked Leaves when I saw it. After reading your review I think that I will wait awhile, perhaps a long while. I am glad to get an opinion on Pym that is not so biased. Thanks for this!

  4. 02/17/2009

    Like I said, I don’t think it’s a bad book, provided your expectations are appropriately tempered. I think if you go in expecting it to be fluffy satire, then I think you’d enjoy the book. But if you go in expecting a more modern Jane Austen, then… not so much. If you do get around to reading A Few Green Leaves, I’ll be interested to hear your take on Pym.
     
    I’ve recently heard that Georgette Heyer is all kinds of awesome in a Jane Austen way. I will, of course, be investigating this claim in the future (provided I can find one of her books!).

  5. 02/20/2009

    Steph,
    The comparison to Austen was made several times by the posters, and that was pretty much what I was expecting from her work. I am not at all averse to a more light and fluffy read, but I think reading your review tempered some of my misconceptions about Pym.

  6. 02/20/2009

    High expectations could really possibly ruin an otherwise perfectly good read. Sometimes it’s hard to avoid, though, with all the reviews available to us now.

    I’ve read about Pym in Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust. If you decide to read Excellent Woman, I’ll just wait for your review before I decide to pick it up or not. Hehe.

  7. 02/20/2009

    Yes, I really think that the key with any book is to have the proper understanding of what the book is or is not. When I first read Cold Comfort Farm, which I mention in my post, I disliked it pretty thoroughly, simply because I didn’t like how outlandish it was… and then I took some time and reconciled the fact that it was meant to be a spoof on D.H. Lawrence and that ilk, and I came to like it more. I think my appreciation would have been heightened in that case if I had actually read some Lawrence, but in this case, I think Pym suffers a bit by the Austen comparison. I mean, to make an American Idol analogy, there are just certain writers that you just shouldn’t touch! I realize many people feel they can make comparisons to Austen, but I think few books and few authors can truly live up to the expectations the name “Austen” will instill in her followers!
     
    That being said, any book that is compared to Austen, I will undoubtedly read, because it is a trap I seem incapable of eluding. Consider this blindspot of mine to be your gain!

  8. […] get something like I Capture the Castle, but wound up getting something more along the lines of a Barbara Pym novel… that is, a diverting read, but one injected with an element of insipidity that I didn’t […]

  9. […] to want to read your book.  The first is Jane Austen.  This is how I came to buy such books as No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym (who has been called the Jane Austen of her day), Beginner’s Greek by James Collins (the book […]

  10. What an illuminating review! I think my expectations are suitably tempered now. I knew that Pym was considered to be ironic and sometimes it is difficult to fully appreciate irony whilst the reader takes the book at face-value. I am intrigued by No Fond Return of Love and wonder how silly I shall find it.

    Likening any writer to Jane Austen can be something of a death-knell but also raises expectations exponentially; speaking of which, Dorothy Whipple is often declared as the Austen of her time!

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