Tuesday, June 4, 2013

No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym

In honor of the centenary of Barbara Pym's birth, Thomas at My Porch and Amanda at Fig and Thistle have organized Barbara Pym Reading Week!  If you have not Barbara Pym, you are in for a treat.  I've now read four of her thirteen books and am just starting a fifth, and they have all been delightful.  

My fourth foray into Barbara Pym's world was No Fond Return of Love.  This is the story of three people who meet while attending a weekend conference on indexing in the late 1950s or early 1960s.  Two of them, Dulcie Mainwaring and Viola Dace, are thirtysomething women who have been disappointed in love; the third is a handsome scholar, Aylwin Forbes, who has recently separated from his wife.  Aylwin and Viola actually have a bit of history, though nothing's really happened, and Dulcie develops a bit of a crush on Aylwin.  

Viola and Dulcie become friendly and as their friendship develops, so does Dulcie's interest in Aylwin. In fact, she almost becomes a bit stalkerish.  At the time, it would probably have been considered just an eccentric crush, but nowadays I think one would be worried.  Dulcie begins to track down Alywin's ex-wife, the parish of Alywin's brother, a clergyman; and the somewhat shabby seaside hotel where Alywin grew up.  There are a lot of moments which are almost painfully awkward to read as Dulcie snoops about him and Viola, still getting over her crush, indulges her.  

Still, it's all very delightful.  We also get a bit of insight into a younger crowd as Dulcie's twentyish niece Lucy moves in with her while she starts a secretarial course in London.  There are also the usual cast of clergyman's wives and do-gooder churchwomen that seem to inhabit all of Pym's novels, and lots of discussion of the food and drink of the period.  I will be forever curious about Cauliflower Cheese from having read Barbara Pym, and though I am lactose intolerant and cauliflower is far from my favorite vegetable, I will probably try and make one soon since I recently ordered this:

It should arrive in the next month or so, and hopefully I'll be able to make all the recipes mentioned in the books.  

Though Barbara Pym is often compared to Jane Austen.  I don't know if I'd say that exactly -- her heroines are older, more jaded, and a little more worldy than Austen's.  However, if Jane Austen traveled in time to the 1950s, still unmarried and fortyish, without aristocratic connections, I can definitely see her writing books very much like No Fond Return of Love and Excellent Women.  They have a similar wry humor and sneaky observations.  

When I opened this book I was hooked from the very first page, with this sentence:

For what could be more peculiar than a crowd of grown-up people, most of them middle-aged or even elderly, collected together in a girls' boarding school in Derbyshire for the purposes of discussing scholarly niceties that meant nothing to the rest of the world?
This cracked me up because for the three of the past four years, I've spent  a long weekend at the Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America, surrounded by about 500 Janeites, discussing her works and her world, from its broad themes to absolute minutiae.  I'm quite sure most of my Janeite friends would love Barbara Pym, if they don't read her already.  

Who else is reading Barbara Pym this week?  Which are your favorites?  And who has a good recipe for Cauliflower Cheese?


  1. Ooh, ooh. I know a way you can make cauliflower cheese without cheese. Vegans like me use nutritional yeast instead, it's cheap and you can find it in most health food stores. I don't want to spam you but I have an easy recipe - http://alexinleeds.com/2011/01/10/macaroni-cheese-to-make-you-swoon/ - just switch the macaroni for steamed or roasted cauliflower. :)

    1. Thanks, I'll take a look. I haven't done much vegan cooking but I'll give it a try.

  2. I found this recipe last night, and am hoping to try it out tomorrow.

  3. My copy of the cookbook arrived yesterday & the recipe for cauliflower cheese is nothing like what I imagine or have ever eaten. I would break the cauliflower into florets, steam it lightly (it will cook a little more in the oven), put it in a casserole or gratin dish & cover with cheese sauce (bechamel or white sauce with added nutmeg & grated cheese). Some recipes add breadcrumbs on top & bake at 180 for about 30 mins.Not suitable if you're lactose intolerant though. Alex's recipe sounds interesting.

    1. So, basically, mac and cheese but with cauliflower substituted for the macaroni. Just as I thought. I keep envisioning an entire head of cauliflower doused in cheese, like a giant cauliflower nacho. Probably a result of living in Texas!

  4. I just read a great bit in an intro to one of my Pyms from novelist Anne Tyler - she said that if Jane Austen and Barbara Pym met in heaven and decided to write a book together, J.A. would ask how the heroine could capture a man and B.P. would say 'why would she want to?' (or something like that...but it was very funny). I think I might have to extend B.P.R.W. into a second week because everyone is raving about this book.

    I don't like cauliflower either, but I haven't had dinner yet and Lyn has just made my VERY hungry.

  5. I just ordered a copy of Some Tame Gazelle, because I read such great reviews - and now I think I need this one too. BPRW is wreaking havoc on my book budget and adding to my TBR stacks - such fun :)

  6. This is not one of my favorite Pym's. I would have to put it somewhere near the bottom of the list. There was something about it that just bugged me and I didn't connect with the characters very well. I posted about Quartet in Autumn today which was also a challenging Pym for me!
    I plan to make this cauliflower cheese either Thursday or Friday: http://tinyurl.com/o4v4tzz

  7. I think that JA has heroines and heroes and romance is the name of her game.
    BP takes up the banner for the 'lesser' characters - the Charlotte Lucas' & Harriet Smith's - of JA's world. Practical, independent and clever women...rather like JA herself :-)
    PS I had to eat cauliflower cheese as a child - it is highly over-rated!!

  8. I absolutely love your comment about Austen and Pym meeting in heaven--and I love your comment about JASNA weekends. My family thinks I'm bongers for finding this activity fun but they've grown used to it.

    I've only read Some Tame Gazelle, but Excellent Women is in the cards for a soonish read.


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