Prim by name and prim by nature …

The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera

Translated by Sonia Soto

Miss primI raced through this book – a feel-good romance set in a rather special little Spanish town. Miss Prim, an administrative assistant, decides to apply for a new job:

Wanted: a feminine spirit quite undaunted by the world to work as a librarian for a gentleman and his books. Able to live with dogs and children. Preferably without work experience. Graduates and postgraduates need not apply.

Miss Prim only partly fitted this description. She was quite undaunted by the world, that was clear. As was her undoubted ability to work as a librarian for a gentleman and his books. But she had no experience of dealing with children or dogs, much less living with them. If she was honest, though, what most concerned her was the problem posed by ‘graduates and postgraduates need not apply.’

Prudencia Prim is a highly educated young woman, and finds herself over-qualified for most jobs. When she arrives at the house in San Ireneo de Arnois, she finds the gentleman sitting in a wingchair giving a Latin lesson to a lively group of children – the children can’t get the answer to his question and Miss Prim blurts out the answer. She and the ‘Man in the Wingchair’ (he is always referred to thus) get off on the wrong foot, when she tells him she didn’t bring her CV because she didn’t think it would be needed and that she was seeking a refuge. The Gentleman misunderstands all this, and it is the children who save the situation by telling their uncle to hire her – which he does and she accepts.

Miss Prim soon finds that the inhabitants of the village have all escaped to the country from the rat-race in the city. They are all intellectuals, former lecturers, businessmen, etc and their families, turned boutique shopkeepers – striving for excellence in their new professions in this community which has grown up around the monastery and the Man in the Wingchair’s house (he being an original inhabitant). The children go all around the village for their lessons, using the specialist skills of the inhabitants.

It is a community that thrives on intellectual debate and philosophical discussion – but soon Prudencia finds that the women also want to find her a husband. Initially she’s not sure, but as she and her employer have developed an odd relationship, she reluctantly agrees. She and the Man in the Wingchair have kept things strictly business, but he is playful and loves to engage her in discussion, which usually ends in a misunderstanding between them needing the air cleared before they can continue. She loves the job though, the Gentleman’s library is full of rare and fascinating books to catalogue.

It’s clear from the first page where you think this book will end up (I’m not saying yay or nay!). Miss Prim and the Gentleman immediately remind one of Lizzie Bennett and Mr Darcy, or Beatrice and Benedick and we all know what happened in both those relationships! They have some wonderful exchanges including this one over the merits of Little Women:

‘You know what surprises me about all this, Prudencia? I look at you – a highly qualified, determined, modern woman – and I can’t picture you reading Little Women.’
Miss Prim put her turned-up nose in the air with even more emphasis than usual.
‘And why not, may I ask?’
‘Because it’s a prissy, syrupy book, and if there’s one thing I hate it’s cloying sentimentality. I’m delighted that you and Herminia recognize that Louisa May Alcott isn’t Jane Austen, because she most definitely is not.’
‘Have you read it?’ she said. ‘Little Women, I mean.’
‘No, I haven’t read it,’ he replied, unfazed.
‘Then for once in your life, stop pontificating and read it before giving an opinion.’

‘The course of true love never run smooth’, says Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The author gives her characters full room to test this out in this delightful and entertaining novel. The bookish nature and love of literature of the two protagonists gives an interesting background to the central romance. Diverting and fun, I enjoyed this book. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own Copy.

Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera, The Awakening of Miss Prim (trans Sonia Soto). Abacus, 2014. Paperback, 336 pages.

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