I have yet to learn how to leave McNally Jackson without buying at least one book. I can't help it--they just jump off the shelves at me, especially when I'm standing near the British fiction section. This past weekend, the jumper in question was The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark. Perfect timing for some unplanned, spur of the moment participation in Muriel Spark Reading Week.
This was the first novel of Spark's that I've read. I actually didn't know much about her until a couple of years ago. To be honest, due to an unfortunate name association on my part, I may have subconsciously assumed she wrote bad romance novels in the vein of Nicholas Sparks. My ignorance couldn't have been further from the truth!
The Girls of Slender Means centers around the women living in a London boarding house called The May of Teck Club on the heels of WWII. While much of its surrounding neighborhood has been reduced to rubble, The May of Teck has seemingly escaped the war unscathed, with its residents pluckily carrying on with all of the standard activities of being a young woman-- working as secretaries, engaging in romantic intrigues, squabbling with the older matrons of the house, and squeezing through tiny bathroom windows to sunbathe on the roof.
Anchoring the cast of females is Jane Wright. She differs from the other girls by being plain and plump and by working not as a menial secretary, but in publishing, or, as Jane prefers to call it, "the World of Books". She prides herself on her "brain work", which often keeps her from joining in the more frivolous activities of the house. Jane's "brain work" is primarily comprised of two things: writing carefully tailored fake fan letters to famous authors in the hopes of getting handwritten replies that she can sell to an autograph collector (for Hemingway, she poses as a recently released female convict, while an illegitimate child letter gets a sympathetic reply from Daphne du Maurier); and doing quasi-detective work for her publisher boss, gathering insight into potential authors so he can learn their weak points and pay them as little money as possible. In the course of one such investigation, Jane brings Nicholas Farringdon, minor poet, would-be author, and anarchist, into the world of the May of Teck Club. Fascinated by all of the girls in turn, Nicholas becomes increasingly drawn into the daily life of the boarding house.
The comic, slightly satirical telling of the present action of the plot is interspersed with snippets of scenes, from some undisclosed time in the future, that allude to the fact that Nicholas has been killed in Haiti while serving as a religious missionary. The circumstances of his demise are so far removed from everything else we've seen of his character that it's easy to assume that there must be a vaguely madcap explanation for them. It's only upon reaching the twist at the end of the novel (which is too effective to spoil by describing in detail here) that we see how the characters' lighter facades are altered by a truly tragic event. I was so impressed by the many layers of depth contained within such an easy wisp of a novel. I'll definitely be reading more Muriel Spark in the future.
(And in case you're wondering- yes, I will be referring to my job as "brain work" from now on.)