The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

Slender Means cover

A stirring, beautiful novel that’s deceptively short and light, and starts with what is now one of my favorite opening paragraphs in all literature:

“Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions. The streets of the cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or in no repair at all, bomb-sites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out, leaving only the cavity. Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wallpapers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed, as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth- or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art-form, leading up and up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind’s eye. All the nice people were poor; at least, that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit.”

The story centers around the May of Teck Club, a boarding house for single young women working in London, and follows the lives of the women living there as they try to rebuild their lives after World War II. The girls do their best to resume some normalcy, trading clothing coupons, trying to maintain their diets despite limited food options, and sharing the one good dress in the club whenever one of them has a fancy date. In just 142 pages, Muriel Spark presents a large cast of characters, all fully-realized and dimensional and flawed, and it’s frankly kind of amazing how much story she manages to fit into such a short book. For the majority it’s just a light, fluffy novel of girls dating and having petty fights and chasing various men, like Sex and the City if it were set in post-war London and all the girls were poor and not horrible. It’s deceptive lightness, though, because the ending is emotional and shattering, and I won’t go into any more detail than that because it shouldn’t be spoiled.

If you were underwhelmed by Spark’s other book on The List, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I recommend giving her another chance here. You won’t be disappointed.

Verdict: five out of five stars

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