Friday, January 31, 2014

REVIEW: No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym

No Fond Return of LoveNo Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Format: Real Live Book
Narrated By: NA
Original Publication Year: 1961
Genre(s): Fiction
Series: NA
Awards: None

Recommended subtitle: Techniques for stalking a very handsome man.

I was a bit wrong-footed by No Fond Return of Love. About a year ago, I read and loved Pym’s Excellent Women. Seriously, I went on and on about it and recommended it to everyone I know. I started this book excited and expecting something similar and I got it. Sort of. In many ways it is very similar right down to the vague romantic ending, but it had a very different atmosphere due in part to a cast of thoroughly bemusing characters.

Dulcie Mainwaring is a thirty-something professional indexer who has just been dumped by her fiancĂ©. In an attempt to shake off the bad feelings she decides to attend a professional conference and there encounters Viola Dace, a rather cynical and lackluster middle-aged woman, and Aylwin Forbes, an editor and very handsome middle-aged man. There is something between Viola and Aylwin; in fact Aylwin’s wife has just left him because she caught him kissing Viola. But Aylwin doesn’t seem interested in Viola and by the end of the conference Dulcie’s curiosity about him has been thoroughly piqued. Dulcie and Viola become rather perfunctory friends, not really seeming to like each other much, and Viola even moves in with Dulcie for a time. Dulcie also begins to stalk Aylwin, there’s really no other way to put it; she tracks down his Mother-in-Laws house and makes a point to walk by, she figures out who his vicar brother is and goes to the church gleaning information about him from the housekeeper. The book culminates in she and Viola booking a holiday at the hotel Aylwin’s Mother owns. In the meantime Aylwin thinks he’s in love with Dulcie’s 19 year old niece.

To be frank none of these characters were terribly likeable. Dulcie the main protagonist comes closest of course but even her behavior is a little hard to explain. She has just been rejected and seems destined for a life of utterly boring spinsterhood; her life is rather empty and she also has a disposition for research. Her interest in and instinct to investigate Aylwin can be somewhat understood, but then… she falls in love with him. Throughout the book Aylwin continues to become more and more ridiculous – vain, fickle, emotionally immature and even somewhat cold. He treats Dulcie with indifference. Dulcie developing feelings for him seems utterly bizarre.

However, I was saved from being completely discontented with the book by what I imagine are Pym’s signature strengths. She seems to have a perfect understanding and way of portraying all the foibles of being an imperfect human being. There are so many times in her books as she describes some inane human reaction or interaction that I find myself thinking “YES, that is EXACTLY how it is…how it feels.” The main characters in both of the books that I have read by her are so utterly conventional but not at all uninteresting. They have hidden depths of quirky humor and self-awareness. They are unique and individual without really trying which is I guess why I can forgive Dulcie her bizarre affection for Aylwin. Finally, Pym’s books are full of an understated humor that warms the cockles of my heart. It is hard to provide an example of it because it’s so integrated in the story but here’s one attempt:

Dulcie and Viola having a conversation about Aylwin and his estranged wife Marjorie:
“That’s where Marjorie Forbes has failed - not being able to share Aylwin’s interests.”
“Well she hardly could if the interests were other women,” said Dulcie, suddenly frivolous. “Those are the kinds of interests wives really can’t be expected to share….”

Indeed, Dulcie, Indeed.

Final Verdict: I am still enamored of Barbara Pym’s writing and that made this book enjoyable despite some less than sympathetic characters.

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