My new favorite Barbara Pym novel


Out of the six Pym novels I have read, Some Tame Gazelle has been my hands down favorite since I read it in 2009. But now that I have read seven Pym novels, I must say that No Fond Return of Love has replaced STG in the number one spot. I should add, however, that NFRL‘s primacy could be short lived. I have a feeling if I reread STG it might climb back to number one. But for now, I will let No Fond Return of Love enjoy its well earned spot at the top.

Published in 1961, No Fond Return of Love was the last Pym novel published before the dark ages descended and Jonathan Cape and other publishers deemed Pym’s work not commercially viable. Maybe it was the incongruity of Pym’s world and the swinging sixties. Indeed while reading NFRL I found Pym’s occasional descriptions of beehives and short skirts to be a little jarring. Mind you, not poorly written, or inauthentic, but just out of place against my perception of the Pymsian universe I have made up in my head. Given that I am inclined toward sensible ladies drinking tea rather than the visual and cultural chaos of Carnaby Street, this is hardly surprising.

After meeting at an academic conference, Dulcie Mainwaring and Viola Dace, two educated but underemployed single women find themselves stalking the strikingly handsome Aylwin Forbes, one of the learned authors who spoke (and fainted) at the conference. We discover almost immediately that Viola has had some sort of romantic entanglement with Aylwin and is still carrying a torch for him, but it isn’t until later that we find out that Viola is the reason Aylwin’s wife has recently left him. If we believe Viola, there was someting meaningful between them. If we believe Aylwin, he merely meant to thank Viola with a kiss for creating the index for one of his books. (No doubt the truth likes somewhere in the middle.)

The two women stalking Aylwin unfolds rather subtley and in a way that is somewhat surprising given their sensible, decorous personalities. And watching that happen is one of the great pleasures of this novel. It is easy to see why some refer to Pym as a 20th century Jane Austen, No Fond Return of Love has its share of vicars, gossip, and even a trip to the seaside town where folks bump into each other.

Many of the things that so endear Pym’s fans to her work are present here: incredibly precise and concise attention to manners, food, clothing, and emotions; witty, trenchant observations of the social and professional workings of the worlds of literature, scholarship, and the Church of England; and women. We read about and believe in her well drawn male characters, but ultimately Pym’s is a woman’s world. They may be weak or strong or somewhere in between, but they are always authentic. While Pym may lean towards making her female characters more independent minded one rarely feels she is judging any of her women–or men for that matter. Pym’s preference for observation rather than judgment may be a result of her years working for anthropology related organizations, just as the other characteristics common in her work were no doubt drawn from her own milieu.

If you haven’t read any Pym yet, I think No Fond Return of Love is a wonderful place to start.

[Incidentally, the copy of NFRL I read was the new reissue of the novel from Open Road Media who also publish e-versions of the work. I’m so glad I bought a copy when I was at the Pym Society Conference in March because I only just found another edition of this title which are a little hard to find on this side of the Atlantic. But more importantly, the Open Road paperback editions are quite lovely. The covers and the paper feel good to the touch, the type is clear and fresh, and the covers don’t try and make Pym look like chick-lit.]

11 thoughts on “My new favorite Barbara Pym novel

  1. Mary June 4, 2013 / 12:00 pm

    This may not be my Favorite Pym novel, but it's in the top three.

    I've posted again about Pym, this time a discussion of a book about a college teacher and her student who is new to Pym. I liked it a lot and I think it has something to offer the new reader.

    Thank you again for doing this Pym Week. It's wonderful to have so many intelligent readers commenting on her work.


  2. Audrey June 4, 2013 / 12:42 pm

    Hmmm. STG is my current favorite because I did just re-read it, but NFRL might displace it when I read it next. We shall see!


  3. Cosy Books June 4, 2013 / 2:32 pm

    I couldn't agree with you more, Thomas! No Fond Return of Love has been my favourite since reading it a few years ago – there is one particular stalking episode that still makes me laugh just thinking about it (I'm not going to ruin things for anyone that hasn't read it though).


  4. Karen K. June 4, 2013 / 3:02 pm

    I loved this one too, I just posted my review. I've started Jane and Prudence and then who knows which I'll read next? I'm accumulating quite a stack and want to collect all of them in multiple editions!


  5. Leticia Austria June 4, 2013 / 3:55 pm

    It's in my top four, along with EW, Some Tame Gazelle, and Jane and Prudence.


  6. Lisa May June 4, 2013 / 10:40 pm

    Excellent Women is still my favorite, but then I've only read two (that I remember). I'm off to look for a copy of this one. I hope it's not too hard to find, I'm in an extravagant mood.


  7. Aarti June 4, 2013 / 10:43 pm

    I have read two Pym novels and have two more to read, but sadly Some Tame Gazelle and this one are not any of them! Will need to remedy that :)


  8. Brona Joy June 5, 2013 / 3:29 am

    I'm beginning to think that 'creating an index for one's book' is some kind of 1950's code for hanky panky!! Everard makes this offer to Mildred at the end of EW and now NFROL :-D


  9. Thomas at My Porch June 5, 2013 / 6:49 am

    Mary: Loved your review of Felicity and BP.

    Audrey: That is what I think will happen with me as I reread them.

    CosyBooks: The whole stalking part was quite surprising to me.

    Karen: I think I may read two more this week.

    Leticia: My top 4 is similar to yours although I think I would swap JaP with The Sweet Dove Died.

    Aarti: It will be a fun remedy.

    Melwyk: I think I am going to read that on the plane today.

    Brona Joy: You need see my link today the Optimal Indexing blog.


  10. JoAnn June 5, 2013 / 8:50 am

    Oh, those chick-lit covers… I really dislike the VMC versions!

    I look forward to reading No Fond Return of Love.


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