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8th April
2011
written by Steph

For Laura: "Would you like a cream bun?"

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

19 Comments

  1. 04/08/2011

    Glad you loved it on the second try! Miss Brodie is such a great example of the adventurous spinster figure :)

    There are a couple of authors I know I hated and later completely loved, but I can’t remeber them at the moment (hate when that happens!). But it’s taught me to give most authors/ books a second chance :)

  2. Laura
    04/08/2011

    we rocked that quiz at the end of that pub crawl. all that cider, laughing and snarky comments and we still knew all the answers!

    I guess I should probably read this book as isn’t this one of the questions I answered?

  3. Laura
    04/08/2011

    sorry forgot to add…did you know they made a movie version of this in the 70′s with Maggie Smith? I remember seeing part of it on TV years ago. I can’t remember if it was any good though…

  4. Eva
    04/09/2011

    I loved the Maggie Smith movie! In fact, I loved it so much, I’ve been unsure whether I should read the book. lol

  5. JoV
    04/09/2011

    I wanted to read this book for ages. It’s a short book so there is no reason why anyone shouldn’t read it! I was equally amazed how re-reading experience is different from the first read. Back in the days when there weren’t so many books for people to read, people tend to read one book again and again, and I wouldn’t scorn at that because it definitely has its virtue and some good books contains gem of wisdom that requires memorising and re-reading to savour the words!

    Thanks for bringing it back to the radar.

  6. *smiles (scratch that, beams) widely*

  7. 04/09/2011

    Your first experience of this sounds exactly like mine, right down to reading it preblog in 2008 (although in my case, it might have been 2007, but no earlier). I have been wanting to revisit Spark, but I was thinking of trying a different book instead, but someone else told me it took her two tries with this one, so I’ve kept that in mind.

    As for books taking more that one try, I’ve had that happen frequently. Wuthering Heights and Heart of Darkness are the examples that always spring to mind. I read them both in high school and again in college and had completely different reactions. I have a mental list of a few others I’d like to try again, but it’s hard to persuade myself to do it when there are so many books out there that I haven’t tried at all–and so many already beloved books I’d like to revisit.

  8. 04/09/2011

    Interesting that the first read didn’t work for you. I read it many years ago and couldn’t understand why it was considered so good. Like you, I had problems with the prose. I’ll add it to my list for re-reading.

  9. Kathleen
    04/10/2011

    This is why I never like to give up on a book. Sometimes it is just a matter of a reread and then the book becomes one that is beloved.

  10. mee
    04/11/2011

    I read this last year and liked it just enough. Loved the movie, I’d really recommend it. I don’t think I’m gonna re-read it but I hardly ever re-read books.

    I think the author that didn’t click with me the first time but I really loved the second book was Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Granted, his first book I read was Memories of my Melancholy Whores, which wasn’t his best and it was also quite early in my English reading life, and his second book was 100 Years of Solitude (which I fell in love with). I now make sure to read an author’s masterpiece / most famous work first rather than starting with their lesser book.

  11. 04/11/2011

    @ Bina: Jean Brodie really is formidable! I do think she’s really interesting because she is by no means a perfect role model and yet you can’t help but root for her.
     
    @ L’Ell: Yeah we did rock that pub quiz! I think you did answer this question, or at least I think you yelled out “Muriel Spark!” so you certainly should read something by her! :D
     
    @ Eva: I watched the trailer for the movie on Netflix and wasn’t sure if I wanted to watch it (I don’t really know why), but if you liked it that much, I feel like I should give it a chance. I do think you’d like the book an awful lot so I do hope you try it one day.
     
    @ JoV: Certain books definitely profit from multiple readings, I think, though many books I read are good simply as one-offs. I never feel like I have enough time to re-read, but this was certainly a lesson in its benefits.
     
    @ Claire: I knew you’d be happy about this! Now I’m so excited to read more Spark!

  12. 04/11/2011

    @ Teresa: I don’t know why I clicked with Jean Brodie this time and not previously but it sounds like several people have had similar experiences, so it may definitely be worth your time to try it again. It’s the only Spark I’ve read so I can’t say how it compares to the rest of her oeuvre, but I’m really looking forward to finding out.
    Oh, and Wuthering Heights is a book I disliked so strongly when I read it I have no real desire to revisit it! ;)
     
    @ Nicola: One thing I definitely feel that has come from my book blogging is that I’ve become a better reader. There are books I’ve read in the past year that I’m sure I would have struggled mightily with a few years ago. I think this was definitely one of those instances… You might be surprised at how approachable it is on a second reading!
     
    @ Kathleen: I like to think that I can tell when a book has a glimmer of something worthwhile in it that is worth digging deep for and don’t dismiss those books. Other books, however, I fully acknowledge may never work for me!
     
    @ mee: So interesting to read that you always read an author’s best works first. I’ve often wondered whether to do this or not, because on the one hand, you may find a new book to love and don’t waste your stuff with the lesser works, but knowing how I operate, I’d fall in love with one book and then want to read everything else the person has written only to be perpetually disappointed by them not being as good as that first book!

  13. 04/11/2011

    This sounds like a book I’d really enjoy. How fun that you gave it another try- I feel like if I were to re-read, I wouldn’t try a book I knew I didn’t like the first time through, but would be more likely to read one I did like. But it makes sense to try both, doesn’t it?

    I LOVE that cover!

  14. 04/12/2011

    @ Aarti: I don’t always re-read books I didn’t really care for the first time; I generally have a good sense when reading a book of whether I feel there’s something about it that is eluding me that might be better grasped on a second read, or whether it’s a simply a book that isn’t for me. Sometimes I think I have a tendency to not like “challenging” books when I first read them because I struggle to get through them the first time and can’t really take them in.

  15. 04/12/2011

    I read A Far Cry From Kensington a year or so ago…and I don’t recall a thing about it. I had the same initial reaction as you. “…That was it?” I didn’t even bother blogging about it. I’m getting the impression that Spark requires more than one quick read, or at least requires the reader to be in a specific mindset (which I probably was not).

  16. 04/15/2011

    To your question at the end, my answer is Coetzee. I rubbed it the wrong way when I first read Summertime. Then I have mentally filtered him for several years until I picked up Disgrace, which I cannot praise enough.

    Muriel Spark would be a new author to read.

  17. 04/18/2011

    I have yet to try any books by Muriel Spark (I know, I know, I’m the last one to the party;P) but have heard so much about her, I have to admit I’m a little scared. I’m glad you liked it on the second reading and want to try more by her.

    I’ve been meaning to re-read so many books, but as you said, it’s so hard with our ever-growing TBR. What to do?

    There is one book that merited a re-read and that was The Information by Martin Amis. When I first read it, I couldn’t finish it because it annoyed and bored me so much. On a second attempt, I finished it, and it was alright but didn’t spur me on to read anything else by him. I’m still tempted to try something else by him, as he is considered British literature’s enfant terrible.

  18. Oh! This is the next Muriel Spark on my list – I’ve read two before, which I liked, but loads of people have said that this is one of her best works, so I can’t wait. Glad you gave it a second try, which went down muuuuch better than attempt numero uno.

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