No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

2010/23: The Girls of Slender Means -- Muriel Spark

The weeks had passed, and since in the May of Teck Club they were weeks of youth in the ethos of war, they were capable of accommodating quick happenings and reversals, rapid formations of intimate friendships, and a range of lost and discovered loves that in later years and in peace would take years to happen, grow and fade. The May of Teck girls were nothing if not economical. Nicholas, who was past his youth, was shocked at heart by their week-by-week emotions. (p. 95)

London, 1945: the May of Teck Club, a Kensington hostel, provides accommodation for 'girls of slender means': a bevy of girls in the dormitory, gossipping about their Air Force boyfriends, and a number of slightly older women who have separate rooms but intricately-connected lives. Poverty and post-war euphoria define this novel. The girls share a Schiaparelli dress, and a fascination with young avant-garde poet Nicholas Farringdon. Jane, who works in publishing -- 'the world of books' -- is fascinated by his worldiness and his words. Joanna, who teaches elocution and has vowed never to love again, wonders if she might make an exception. Nicholas, though, is more interested in the beautiful and accessible Selina.

The Girls of Slender Means evokes an almost frantic sense of carpe diem, a pervasive relief that the war's over and simultaneously a sense of foreboding, of imminent change. This is a London of unexploded bombs, quiet violence, rationing and the black market.

I read this because a friend remarked on its similarities to Hilary Mantel's An Experiment in Love. There are similarities: the girls living together almost claustrophobically, the fire at the end, perhaps the framing of a character looking back much later. The Mantel novel, though, is a much darker book. While some of the events may be comparable, the tone and flow and focus are not.

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