September 28, 2011

Reading: Barbara Pym

For years people have been telling me to read Barbara Pym.  Mom loves her, as did my grandmother (who from the grave has recommended many beloved books to me simply because her tidy script was in the top corner of the first page). Laurie Colwin loves her too; she describes her as wry and sophisticated, and her novels as quiet but funny, lovely books (that's how I'd describe Colwin's books, and you know how I love her.) So I was thrilled when The Book Bank had two of her novels in tidy little paperbacks for a couple bucks.  Finally, I'd be able to read Miss Pym.

But let me ask you a question: is this the cover of a wry, sophisticated, quiet but funny, lovely little book?  I will blame my dissatisfaction with this tale on the cover.  (We can judge books by their covers when we've actually read the books, right?)

What single, not-yet-thirty, slightly bookish woman who's never read a romance novel in her life wouldn't feel a little bit awkward reading <----THAT on the metro--especially when the title, No Fond Return of Love, was so boldly proclaimed across the top?  I was certainly quite self-conscious, and indeed covered the book with my newspaper, as if I was reading so tawdry dime novel with heaving bosoms and lots of shirtless Fabios. (Now, I'd be less embarrassed by this cover for sure.)

Let me assure you: there are no heaving bosoms or shirtless Fabios. There is Dulcie, a researcher in London, who spends her time indexing academic texts on obscure subjects. After a broken engagement she goes to an editing and research conference, and meets the rakish professor/editor, Alywin Forbes, and the blunt spinster Viola Dace.  Dulcie is a little overwhelmed and smitten with the incredibly handsome Alywin, and, since research is what she does, she researches him: finding his mother's hotel (and his childhood home), and seeking out his brother's parish (a handsome clergyman who is always getting into trouble for his good looks, too).

To do Dulcie justice, she is kind and thoughtful, solid, and sensible.  And we are lead to believe that she is not without physical charms too, though she wears sensible shoes and never puts her hair down.  She is younger than most of her colleagues.  The true spinster is Viola, who's cynical apprehension of everyone and everything ages her beyond her years.  Still, she joins Dulcie in their rather strange expeditions discreetly trying to find out more about Alywin and his past.

About halfway through the novel it occurred to me that perhaps it was a satire--not of the lurid romance novel, but of the less sensational but just as wrong-headed modern-day notions of love and marriage (like the utterly improbable narratives of most chick-flicks).  Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey achieved something similar satirizing the Gothic Romances of her day; Northanger Abbey is by far the most laugh-out-loud funny book she wrote.

But Miss Pym cares too much about her heroine to really pull off the satire. She treats all the other characters with the same wry detachment suitable to a satire, but she wants happiness for Dulcie.  This isn't really supported by the rest of the story. The resolution is too little, too late.  Miss Pym doesn't have the gumption to see her satire to its logical conclusion.

I have found this to be a persistent problem with female satirists.  The recent adaptations of Vanity Fair (BBC and Reese Witherspoon's) failed similarly.  The BBC version makes too much of the Captain and Amelia finally falling in love.  And Witherspoon desperately wants Becky to win. (The novel, on the other hand, has one of the most biting and satisfying ends I have ever read, and is a satire through and through to the very last word.)

The only truly successful satire of romantic love from a woman's perspective is, I think, Northanger Abbey.  Austen allows her heroine to fall, to really see how absurd she is, and thus ends up meriting the happy resolution.  No Fond Return of Love falls more in the Mansfield Park line (and indeed that novel is quoted at the last paragraphs)--where at the last moment our wayward hero realizes who he ought to really love.  Mansfield Park has never been a favorite Austen novel, and Fanny has never been a favorite heroine, but Austen is fine enough to pull off such a sudden conclusion.  Pym is neither as bold nor as funny nor as generous as Austen, and the novel fails.

But it is loved by many--so I will conclude this long and rather disjointed review to say that the cover poisoned me against the novel, and I look forward to reading more by Barbara Pym in the future.

UPDATED 2/26/13: Miss Hale reviews.


  1. Well, I too am a Pym fan, but have never seen this particular novel of hers. May I suggest there was a reason it was so cheaply bought? :) (What you *should* read, of course, is Excellent Women!)

  2. Yes, I have heard that is her best. I didn't pick it up because the plot synopsis reminded me of The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor (no, not THAT one, this one). But it's been years since I've read The Soul of Kindness so I'll have to give Pym another go soon.

  3. So funny. I just picked up 4 Pyms at the book sale and couldn't remember how or why I had heard of them--just that it was stuck in my head that I must do so. I look forward to reading them!