Tuesday, January 27, 2009

No Fond Return of Love

No Fond Return of Love, by Barbara Pym, is something of an ensemble story. As the title implies, hardly anyone's love is fondly returned. There were some standout moments in this book, but overall it did not excite me the way Excellent Women did.

The main character, Dulcie Mainwaring, is similar to other Pym heroines - perpetually single, seemingly selfless, a good friend. But her character really frustrated me because she cast herself as an observer in her own life. Writes Pym:

It seemed - though she did not say this to Viola - so much safer and comfortable in the lives of other people - to observe their joys and sorrows with an air of detachment as if one were watching a film or play.
Although Dulcie's clearly fascinated by a man she meets, instead of acknowledging her feelings, she practically stalks him. She invites him and a few other folks and her young niece, Laurel, to dinner:
Laurel looked at the two women scornfully. If only they could realize how ridiculous and embarrassing they were! She began to clear away the soup plates rather noisily. There was something so depressing about the culture of middle-aged people.

Now, that's funny.

Now doubt Pym knew what she was doing - Dulcie's character exemplifies a type of person who waits for things to happen to her. She may seem "sweet" and "nice" - but I think Pym's (not so subtly) mocking her.

However, what's really interesting about Dulcie's character is how she doesn't match the typical stereotypes of the female heroine. What Dulcie lacks is any kind of eroticism - she doesn't seem to desire love, and people find it vaguely impossible that she could be a romantic person. In the midst of this "romantic" novel Dulcie is the one who never seems to long for that fond return of love. I love how Pym balks at the traditional by turning the novel on it's head - now I've read three of her books in the last few months and each one in unconventional. Read this conversation between Dulcie and her cleaning woman:
"You could make so much more of yourself, Miss Mainwaring," said Miss Lord almost on a despairing note, "if only you would."

"What should I do?" Dulcie asked.

"Well, you could have your hair restyled by one of those Italian hairdressers - in the bouffant style, they call it - it would add fullness to your face, make your head look bigger."

"Do I want my head to look bigger?" Dulcie fingered her fine, smooth hair. "Would it be an advantage? Anyway, I don't think my hair would go like that."

"You could have a perm - to give it body," said Miss Lord eagerly. "They use rollers to set it, you know. And you could use more eye make-up. It would make your eyes look bigger."

Dulcie laughed. "Goodness! Head bigger and eyes bigger - then what?
...
"You read too much, that's your trouble," said Miss Lord, seeing Dulcie settling down at the table with a book. "They [men] don't like it."

"No, I don't think they do," said Dulcie, but absently now, as the world of the book began to seem the real one.
Finally, my favorite passage - from the perspective of the object of Dulcie's fascination:
He read the notice on the front door - "JUMBLE SALE - IN AID OF THE ORGAN FUND". This was really too much! The things women did to men! Had anybody ever really made a serious study of the subject, of the innumerable pinpricks and humiliations endured by men at the hands of women? How could he enter the house with flowers for his wronged wife when the place was crowded with women buying and selling jumble in aid of the organ fund!
Yes, well, it's all for the best that Dulcie never got to know him...

1 comment:

Steph said...

I just finished this book and wrote about it on my site. My reaction was very much similar to yours, I think. Overall, a fairly silly novel populated by foolish people. Perhaps if I try Pym again, I will have to give "Excellent Women" a shot.