Avid book bloggers know that a common lament throughout the book blogging world is the lack of time devoted to re-reading, given all the wonderful new books that are cropping up every day. With so many books frequently flooding into my own home, I know that I certainly have spent the bulk of my reading time in years past trying to make my way through the deluge of new books, rather than returning to old favorites. Of course, it’s not just well-loved books that I frequently mark as “to re-read”, but also books that challenged me or that I struggled with. Sometimes I finish a book that I expected to love and find that we just didn’t click. This can certainly be due to the book just not being my cup of tea, but sometimes I think that I simply wasn’t in the right space for that book, or that it might be one of those tricky ones that you can only appreciate after multiple readings. I am here to say that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is definitely one of those books.
I first read Jean Brodie back in 2008 right before I started this blog. At the time I had such high hopes because I heard so much of Spark’s biting humor and vorpal tongue. And, as I’ve said before, I really love books that look at the tumultuous relationships between young girls. We can be vicious little creatures, can’t we? All signs pointed to me loving the book and yet when I look at my reading journal from that time, all I wrote about it was this:
Again, another book that left me going “what’s all the hype about?”
Well, they say brevity is the soul of wit.
Clearly, though, this one was not love at first read. I eventually got rid of the book during one of my purges and figured that was that. I certainly had no intention of reading the book ever again, and given that it was the best known of Spark’s books, I didn’t really feel as though I need to read anything else by her.
But fickle lady that I am, on one of my marathon sessions at McKay’s Tony came across an Everyman’s copy of three of Spark’s novel, including (of course) Jean Brodie. Sucker that I am for a pretty book, I decided that I would buy it and give old Muriel another try. By this point I had also read many positive reviews of several of her other books on various well-trusted blogs so I figured that it was worth giving her another go.
I’m really glad I did! Maybe it was because the book I was holding was so pretty, but this time, Jean Brodie and I were on exactly the right wavelength. I remember struggling with Spark’s prose during my first read, but this time, I was delighted by her rather austere writing. Having read much more widely since our first encounter, this time I was reminded of Penelope Fitzgerald stylistically (another author whom I would like to read more of!). I definitely responded to the wry humor, and I also found the book much darker… deliciously so! Perhaps because I knew how things would turn out this time round, I was better able to focus on how the novel progresses rather than simply reading to find out how the die would be cast. I really do think that the way Spark crafts the narrative is very impressive, especially because certain cards are revealed at the very beginning, and yet she still manages to maintain tension throughout the entire novel, only reveal her full hand at the very end in a rather damning flourish. I suppose it should be of no surprise that a woman who when asked in her later years whether she saw her son responded with, “I think I know how best to avoid him by now”, that she is able to capture the flinty nastiness of young girls perfectly, but it bears repeating. Perhaps it says more about me than it does about Spark, but I rather loved how unflinching and cold the story is. There is no backing down, no attempt to soften the blows, and while it is more cruel than kind, I admire an author who does not feel the need to whitewash the pettiness of life.
All in all, I’m really glad I gave Spark another try and now I’m very excited to read more books by her. I already have three more to choose from (including the two that were part of the Everyman’s collection), which I’m really pleased about. Have you ever encountered a writer later in life that you had previously dismissed only to discover you responded better to them on your second meeting? What about books? Are there any books you liked much more on a second reading?
Rating: 4 out of 5