Having just finished my second Barbara Pym novel, No Fond Return of Love, I can safely say she is now a favorite. I will return happily to both No Fond Return of Love and Excellent Women for rereading at some point. They are easily the kind of book a person could grab off the shelf on a rainy afternoon and vanish inside the story for several wonderful hours.
No Fond Return of Love is similar to Excellent women in that it tells the story of a woman (I was going to say a young woman, because she can’t be much over thirty, but alas, she is not quite young enough and that fact lies quite firmly at the root of her troubles) who is recently disengaged from her fiancé and attends an academic conference in an attempt to forget her sorrow. At the conference, she meets two people who will greatly change the next few months of her life.
Now, I quite like books with this sort of premise, because it is exactly the people we meet under the most banal circumstances who can change our lives unexpectedly, in both good and bad ways. And Dulcie Mainwaring is greatly in need of change. Her first encounter is with another woman on the verge of inconsolable spinsterhood, Viola Dace, and then she is subsequently introduced to a very handsome academic named Dr. Aylwin Forbes. These three are thrown together over the course of the novel and Pym uses their various situations to look at her central question about the nature of happiness and how it relates to love and marriage.
On the whole, I would say that No Fond Return of Love is an easy novel. That word easy is so dangerous, I think, because it can also mean (and I have myself used it this way) to imply that the book lacks depth. This is where Pym’s strength lies. Her books appear quite light, really, and are wonderfully readable and funny. But there is an almost harrowing sorrow in all that she brings up. Her characters are laughable, but they are also suffering an acute pain.
Lilian Nattel and Litlove brought up Pym’s endings in the comments on Lilian’s post on Excellent Women. As Litlove put it, “For such a funny writer, though, she often chooses frustrating endings, or at least endings in which few people win or make headway.” This is so spot-on that I had to repeat it here. The ending of No Fond Return of Love leaves her characters at a kind of impasse, in a situation that would certainly not be considered advantageous for anyone, and yet…it feels very real. Pym deals with the notion of compromise quite openly, as if compromise is the only way to move forward in love relationships. This is quite depressing, but gets to the complicated reality that IS a relationship. This is also probably why Pym could never be considered a romantic novelist even when all of her books focus almost exclusively on marriage and love.
One last thing I wanted to mention about this particular book is the way Pym handles the narrative perspective. It is actually quite uncommon how she slips back and forth into each character’s mind, even within the same paragraph. The effect can be a little destabilizing until you get used to it, but after that it creates a really intricate mosaic. Having such direct access into the minds of all the characters makes the reader the only one who really understands all that is going on. This technique, combined with Pym’s incisive satirical voice, actually generates a lot of sympathy. Satire always risks turning a character into a stereotype, or, at the very least, into an object of scorn. But Pym sidesteps this so neatly, by bringing the reader as close as possible inside the character that what remains important is their fragility—in whatever form that takes.