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3.9 out of 5 stars25
3.9 out of 5 stars
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on 28 July 2010
This slim volume has it all - great and thoughtful writing, superb characterisation, a good story, wonderful atmosphere, humour, tragedy and pace. Spark has fitted everything into her 142 pages that Dickens might take four or five times that to cover.

Set in London towards the end of World War 2, the Girls of the title are well bred ladies living in the oddly named May of Teck, which is a boarding house for genteel, hard up, single girls although a few middle aged spinsters also still live there. The girls' main occupation is men and they fall in and out of love as various young boys pass through their lives and back into the war. One such is Nicholas Farringdon, a would-be poet, who we know at the start of the story is going to die.

The plot revolves around Farringdon's interaction with three of the girls, Jane Wright who works for the publishing house that Nicholas hopes will take up his poems, Selina Redwood who is the most beautiful and manipulative of the girls, and Joanna Childe the daughter of a church minister who teaches elocution through poetry and psalms to the other girls.

A surprise love story evolves as Farringdon spends the summer sleeping with Selina on the roof of the May Teck club where they are safe from prying eyes - because only the very slimmest girls can wriggle through the window onto the roof (hence the double meaning of the title). There is a mad swirl around them as the war ends and people try to find stability in their lives. The spinsters worry that there is a UXB in the garden, the girls swap their Schiaparelli taffeta evening dress backwards and forwards to social events, there are parties and boys and Joanna's poetry as well as side plots about Jane's boss, Selina's other boyfriend and so on. It's a delightful comedic mix but as tragedy erupts the girls' lives are changed forever and the world of the May Teck Club comes to an end - reflecting back the demise and changes that the war has made on Britain and the Edwardian way of life.

This is written with great finesse and empathy for the girls and their situation. It's a shame it is so short but that is a characteristic of all Muriel Spark's books -and I shall now be seeking them out.
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The story looks back to the war, when a random group of girls with very little money who are working as clerks and secretaries for the war effort, live in a hotel for genteel young gentlewomen just off Kensington High Street. The novel tells of their escapades, their relationships to one another, their generous sharing of a single Shiaparelli evening gown, their climbing out of a tiny attic window onto the roof for frolics - well, those who are thin enough can.

All of this becomes linked towards the end of the story, when there is the most wonderful description of a typical London wartime event, with all its pitfalls and ramifications. (won't say what, don't want to spoil the story, but being 'slender' becomes very important.)

It's all told with her sharp, sharp wit, her eye for observation and her cutting comments about people and the way they are, yet her sense of amusement at it all never makes it seem harsh. Elegant, funny, so short you wish it were longer, this is Muriel Spark at her best and a great follow-up to Miss Jean Brodie if you are coming to it from there.
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on 11 November 2010
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'.
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on 9 November 2009
The Girls of Slender Means tells the stories of several young women in the year of 1945 living in The May of Teck Club (pretty much a hostel) near Kensington Gardens. The girls are all working as clerks or secretaries and living on rations, clothing coupons and hand outs from admiring men. Through each on of the girls in the book Spark looks at the morals and plotting of such a group of women in both a comic and sometimes shocking way.

We have Joanna a rectors daughter who shockingly fell for a rector herself before coming to London and teaching elocution lessons, Greggie, Jarvie and Collie the old maids of the building, Pauline Fox a mad young lady who believes she dines with the actor Jack Buchanan every night, Jane Wright who works in a publisher and gets authors to write letters signed she can sell on the black market and yet who doesn't know Henry James is dead and Selina a woman of loose morals who sleeps with weak men but pursues strong ones for marriage partners she wont sleep with yet. All of them will become more unified and torn apart though not only when Nicholas Farringdon a charming author turns up, but when a shocking (I gasped) event leads to one girls fatal end (I gasped again). A small book that packs a big punch or two.
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on 19 December 2013
This book is probably not to everyone's taste - it seeps 1945 London from every pore, so if you don't like petrol coupons, ration books, rare stockings and bomb sites then look elsewhere. The social context is also interesting - what did single girls do in 1945 and how did they lead their lives? I used to date a girl who lived in a 1970s equivalent of the May of Teck Club so it had resonance for me.
The characters are well conceived - it is mostly about Jane Wright and Nicholas Farringdon - but the minor characters (the elder club members, the Americans) are also colourful. The beginning is slightly tricky to read as there is an omniscient narrator, and it's hard to work out who the plot will follow. The text is spliced with poetry being read out by the mysterious Joanna Childe and the relevance of this only becomes known later...
The plot is fairly gentle in a kind of life writing style, but the action does arrive.
I enjoyed this a lot more than Memento Mori (see separate review).
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on 10 December 2014
I've always wanted to read this author and this is my first book of hers. I wasn't overly impressed, found it slow going for the majority. It's a short book and a fast read and while the first third or so I found quite boring there comes a point when I became interested in how it would all turn out. The author uses foreshadowing throughout though, so it is no great surprise as to the end result. The story is both quaint and quirky, having some humorous moments and the writing is witty. Sparks takes a look at single women in the post-WWII era, where we have some who want to get a man and marriage, others who want independence and a career and others who are lost in a no-man's land. (pun intended) The book's title is even interpreted beyond the obvious meaning. I'd try another of Spark's books and while I'm not immediately "wow"-ed with this one I can see it growing on me.
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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 12 January 2015
This is very nice period piece which is full of fascinating characters. Spark is such a good writer.You never know what's going to happen next and what everyone's going to do about it. It's quite a short book and well worth a read.
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on 13 December 2015
Sort of dated, even though I am. Spark seems to struggle to be ironic, and what story there is, is hard-going.
Personally I'm quite happy that the supposedly wicked and immoral girl rescues the only valuable thing in the building,
whereas, to me, the MOST wicked deed is to brick up a fire exit. It's slightly "fattist", even though "the baddie" is slim.
It's best is short! It gets marginally better towards the end, but a bit of a wade through treacle.
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on 16 March 2014
Haven't had chance to read this yet but hope to do so soon. Saw the write up and thought it would be a good read.
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on 27 October 2015
I really enjoyed the start of this book about a group of young ladies in a hostel at wartime but somehow in the middle the story seemed to go off at a bit of a tangent and I couldn't finish it. It might just be me because I know this author is very well admired, I will try another of hers because her actual writing is wonderful and perhaps this storyline wasn't for me.
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