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Any reader who has already been bitten with the Muriel Spark bug but has not got around to this story should embrace it eagerly. I’d call it one of her best (I have never yet read a bad one by her), but it probably needs some appreciation on the reader’s part of the atmosphere of England immediately after the war. Myself, I am not quite old enough to recall 1945 with any clarity, but come to that Dickens is before my time too. A little historical background goes a long way, and novelists of the calibre of Dickens or Spark will do the rest for us.

Dame Muriel is very good at first pages, and the first page here is as good as any, easing the reader into the general scene and the particular atmosphere of middle-class young women improvising their lives in a house of multiple occupancy that has itself seen better days. The cast is fairly large for a short novel, but the effect created is of a kind of kaleidoscope, with the vivacious young things, plus a few who are not so young, flashing in and out of the narrative. There may or may not be a central character, and if there is it is presumably Jane, the first character named. One does not go to Muriel Spark for moral lessons, but this time she stays neutral – they do what they do because that is who they are. Conspicuously absent are the real rotters we find in some of her other novels, such as Patrick Seton or Father Socket in The Bachelors.

One or two other standard Spark personae are given a rest this time. There are no Catholics for instance, unless one counts the young missionary, which I don’t. There are no Scots either, only one middle-aged spinster with a Scottish name. In particular there is a complete absence of the irrational, such as Mrs Hogg in The Comforters disappearing when alone because she has no private life. The author does not even tease us this time with inconclusive hints like the vague suggestions of a diabolic theme in The Ballad of Peckham Rye, much less go totally overboard into irrationality as she does in The Hothouse by the East River.

The time-perspective flits around a bit, and that is certainly a Spark mannerism. However what I find very special here is the way the story bursts into abrupt action towards the end. It would be wrong to be specific about that in a review, and wrong in a different way because of the totally chance coincidence between my reading this book and a ghastly recent tragedy in London. The colours of the Spark kaleidoscope flare up threateningly, but the author stays in control, and there is maybe even a touch of rather uncharacteristic humanity this time.

So, do I ‘recommend’ this novel? To tell the truth, I don’t know. I think it is rather marvellous, as I usually find Muriel Spark, but she may or may not be your cup of tea.
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on 9 June 2016
Incredibly written, an escape to a different time. This is a transporting read - brilliant!
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on 6 June 2017
Prompt delivery & interesting read
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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 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 29 August 2016
Good condition. Wouldn't recommend story.
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on 2 May 2017
Muriel Spark always wrote interesting novels with unpredictable endings - that is what I demand from a good book. Another factor a good book should have is that there should be something new when you read it for the second time. Spark meets both of the demands.
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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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