You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Sunday, September 18, 2011


The Girls of Slender MeansThe Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first Muriel Spark novel I have read, and I have always had the notion that she was an author one read entirely, not just a random novel here and there. But The Girls of Slender Means is a completely satisfying three hours' read. Spark had me from the first paragraph, and when the novel was over, the incidents of death, murder, and insanity seemed all of a piece with the sort of girls' boarding house comedy I associate with something along the lines of Stage Door.

The setting is London, 1945, after the war in Europe but with VJ day still in the future. Ration cards for everything from powdered milk to clothing are tradable commodities, and bombed-out ruins litter the urban landscape. It was a time, Spark says, when "all the nice people of England were poor, allowing for exceptions." The May of Teck Club stands opposite Kensington Gardens and provides a home for the daughter of country clerics and other respectable middle-class families who must find work after the war. Exactly what many of the young women do remains vague, but they date a great deal, the youngest settling for RAF pilots and the more mature girls setting their eyes on American officers.

Spark's voice provides insights and asides that are remorseless rather than cruel. The action, such as it is, builds towards the kind of flamboyant set piece Alfred Hitchcock favored in his films of the 1940's. The denouement, which Spark intersperses throughout the book starting on about page three, takes the reader out of the closed-in world of the May of Teck Club and into the 1960's.

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