The Girls of Slender Means

By Muriel Spark

Book Club choice for June. It tied with John Fowles’s The Magus but had more people put it in second place, so its overall ranking was higher. Such are the subtleties and unwritten rules of our elite organization.

I finished my first read, which for a Muriel Spark book means that I have identified what the important things are going to be and who all the characters are. Now I can go look them up, think about them for a while, and reread it so I know what’s really going on. For this book I have to look up:

The Battle of Dunkirk
The sources of all those poetry excerpts
Why, when, and where the queen was called May of Teck
What was happening in Haiti

Muriel Spark is very interested in fire. The last three books I’ve read by her contain major scenes with burning buildings. Interesting… I totally dig her brand of feminism, though. I think this book has extraordinary female characters, in that ordinary women sparkle with personality and difference and normalcy. Plus that dig about all the women poets at that party really being just the typists for their male poet boyfriends and that was probably the same thing. That’s an insult that works on so many levels!

Everyone liked it, a lot. It’s not something I feel like I have fully processed yet, so I don’t want to jump straight ahead to a five-star rating. I did read it a second time and some new themes jumped out at me: the inadequacy of poetry (and the publishing world in general), the nature of friendships, vanity vs. practicality… I still think there is a thesis inside me regarding the poems that Joanna recites, and I did look a few up, but I really don’t have time to analyze all the poems individually and in context. I wonder how much of the frankness about sex and body image is an artifact of England, of the 1960s (when it was written), or of post-war London. The calorie counting was something else entirely!

The May of Teck Club was an extraordinarily delightful community. I was sorry to see it go, both as a book and as a fictional establishment.

During book club, we decided that a 7 x 14 inch space was just inadequate for even the smallest person to get through. I have some stair railing spaces that are 7 1/2 by 17 and I got through partway. My boobs got stuck but could be forced through, but there was no way I could have made my hips fit. I think the smaller women would have had no problems slipping through that space. I can’t imagine how fat Jane was supposed to be, though. They kept calling her fat but it was such a time of deprivation. Mefears that our perspective of what “fat” is has been skewed by time and culture.

Not a very articulate response to the book I’m afraid. But I was impressed with the prescience of this contemporary book review from the New York Times, dated 1963. How nice it must have been for Spark to be recognized as a genius in her own lifetime! Not that the review calls her a genius, exactly, but it marks her as a person of note. And note her I shall. I think I want to read her book, The Comforters, next.

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  • Muriel Spark's Books  On August 15, 2008 at 11:46 am

    Haven’t read this one…is it any good? I loved The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but couldn’t get into The Finishing School; it’s about this writing professor who is disturbed (and envious) about how talented one of his students is. I liked the premise (similar to Amadeus), but that seems to be all that’s going on. If I weren’t delinquent and actually attended book club, I probably would have voted for this one.

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