Erudite, intelligent and a little sardonic, Muriel Spark's entertaining novel 'The Girls of Slender Means' centers around a women's boarding house at the close of World War Two. The War provides an interesting and topical framing for the novel, and gives it an extra sense of authenticity, though the drama of the boarding house, and it's varied characters and social hierarchy provide the main focus for Spark's exploration of independent female society, and the morals and female relationships of the time. The story is made up of interesting vignettes, which tie together through the social interaction of the girls, and the various men who visit them, and the light feel of the episodes contrasts well with the more serious reflections Spark attempts to make, regarding the social conducts and rights of personal independence for the women.
Spark's tale of Joanna, the elocution teacher, is particularly interesting in light of these issues, and probably the most enjoyable sections of the book. The novel's climax is rather more dramatic than the subtle, but intriguing window into a style of life which most of the novel deals with, and fits a little awkwardly with the rest of the work, though it does show well the solidarity of the boarding house's ladies. On the downside, a few sections of the text, as well as one or two of the characters stories (namely that of Greggie and the other elder ladies) are a little boring and don't seem to give much to the text, and at times Spark's style is just a little too understated (and comes off a little flat in these places), but 'The Girls of Slender Means' is, on the whole, a pensive and wholly worthwhile exploration of social and cultural issues, as well as general life, in the confines of a women's boarding house, even if it never hits the heady heights of the finest moments of works like 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie'.