My thanks to the author Betsy Hanson for taking the trouble to mail copy of this book all the way to me (and a very lovely one it is), and also to Ali from Heavenali for putting me in touch with Betsy.

Always Gardenia (2018) transports readers to the charming, gentle, and yet very real world of Barbara Pym’s novels. In the book, we meet Gardenia Pitkin, who at fifty-six has been a widow for two years, and when the book opens, we find her arriving to interview for an administrative assistant post at the English Department at the University of Northwest in Seattle. Finances are rather tight and she needs the job. In the department head, the somewhat eccentric Chaucer expert, Dr Arnold Wiggens she finds not only a nice person but a kindred spirit for he seems to dote over Leroy, his dachshund, (‘a standard’ who accompanies him to work every day) much like Gardenia does her own miniature Susie, now 10. At almost the same time, arrives Dr Laurel DrBarr there to take up a professor’s post for the semester (with the possibility of tenure), not only attractive to look at but rather successful in academically with two books out and articles seeming to be churned out by the minute (or at least by the day). Dr DuBarr is arrogant and rather hard to please but Arnold seems to fall for her almost instantly and does all he can to do so. Meanwhile another colleague, Dr Frieda Hamm is clearly in love with Wiggens.

Department work and romantic equations apart, Gardenia has much going on in her own life; her son Hans, only 24 has given up a promising career in music, and is working in inconsequential jobs to support his wife Caitlin who is working at her degree, and toddler Milo, whom Gardenia adores. But Caitlin’s behaviour and girls’ nights out are getting more than simply annoying, making Gardenia suspicious. Gardenia is almost on the brink of poverty (her money almost running out), terribly lonely and misses her husband Torre all the time, but has support in her wealthy but kind friend Sylvie, Hans and Milo. Then she runs into an attractive engineer, Lex Ohashi, who is definitely interested in her, and invites her to go dancing, something she very much enjoys.

Navigating all these changes, and friendships and relationships old and new, Gardenia must discover what it is that she needs to be really happy in life.

Always Gardenia turned out to be a delightful read for me, and one I felt managed to really capture both the world and ‘feel’ of a Barbara Pym novel, be it in its academic setting (and struggles to get publications), eccentric but likeable characters, romances which seem at times touched by midsummer madness, the characters’ lives which are often tinged with loneliness and melancholy even though ‘full’ in other senses, and even in its ending which always seems to bring one back to reality. And to complete that feeling, Arnold also lives in a neighbourhood chockful of churches, even if they never actually visit one.

I also really liked most of the characters in the book; Gardenia’s struggle coping with her grief when no one else can exactly understand what she is going through is very realistic, and so is her journey navigating the different relationships in her life—sometimes certain things bring brief joys but are they really what she wants? What about her relationship with her son? Is it her place to intervene based on suspicions, and how far? Dr Wiggens with his very English ways, deep love of Chaucer and close relationship with his mother is very much something out of Pym. As are many others, like Frieda Hamm, or Dr Wiggens’ mother, always trying to matchmake. But despite that, this is very much a novel in a contemporary American setting and that comes through well too.

And of course, there are dogs! On the cover, and inside we have the two lovely dachshunds, Leroy and Susie (the latter appears less frequently than the former), and I loved them being around, and how without doing much else than being dogs (and in Leroy’s case, annoying a neighbour with his ‘concert’), they are an important and special part of the story, and something over which Gardenia bonds with Arnold.  

A lovely read, and one Pym fans and readers of gentler fiction would enjoy.

Book details: Betsy Hanson, Always Gardenia (Washington: Bryant House Books, 2018); The book is available as an ebook, an audiobook (at Audible, narrated by Betsy), and as a paperback through Amazon. Betsy can arrange for an inscribed hardbound copy if contacted through her website, betsyhansonauthor.com, or at betsyhansonauthor@gmail.com.

Ali at Heavenali also enjoyed the book; Find her thoughts here.

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