Category Archives: Novella

‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ by Muriel Spark

I tend to avoid short novels. I’m either in the mood to work through a collection of short stories (with their clearly defined stopping points) or spend a good chunk of time with a big, meaty novel. Muriel Spark’s classic The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, however, has taught me that the novella deserves a place in my reading life as well. Strange and concise, Spark’s best-known work offers a unique perspective I had yet to encounter in literature, and one that I am now glad to have read.

Miss Jean Brodie is the unconventional teacher of ten-year-olds at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, a stuffy Catholic school in Edinburgh, Scotland, in the early 1930s. At first, Miss Brodie’s unorthodox teaching methods are relatively harmless: she selects six girls—the “Brodie set”—to serve as her “crème de la crème” as she encourages them to appreciate Beauty and Culture by escorting them to concerts and museums and reading Jane Eyre aloud to them. However, once the girls graduate from her tutelage to the Senior School, Miss Brodie’s behavior becomes increasingly inappropriate and serves not the girls’ well-being, but her own selfish aims. Though one of her own ultimately betrays her, the girls of the Brodie set are forever influenced by the lessons they learned as teenagers from their Machiavellian instructor.

What I loved most about this concise but psychologically complex novella is the fresh perspective that it offers. World War I shocked the United States and Europe with the barbarity of its violence and the unprecedented number of casualties the new style of battle bred. As a result, a myriad of new voices emerged from the war telling stories that American and European literature had never heard before. Amazingly, the experiences of the women affected by the decimation of so many young men have largely been ignored. The story of Miss Jean Brodie helps to remedy that deficit.

As a young woman when the war began, Miss Brodie, like many women, suffered the loss of her fiancé. Also like many other women of her time, Miss Brodie is unable to secure another prospect and dedicates the abundant energy of her young adulthood—her “prime”—to the education of the girls she instructs at the Marcia Blaine School. However, the loss of her fiancé, and thus the family life she had surely imagined for herself, tinges Miss Brodie with a bitterness that cultivates the manipulative, selfish behavior she exhibits. Miss Brodie’s actions are disturbing, but her motivations are realistic considering her experiences, and therefore surely worth telling.

Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a strange but intriguing book. The length and contents of the novel seem perfectly suited for film adaptation so I look forward to checking out the movie soon!

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‘The Sense of an Ending’ by Julian Barnes

You know you’ve read a good book when you care enough about it has to say that you disagree with it. I’ve never read Julian Barnes before, but I’m very glad I changed this with The Sense of an Ending. Winning the 2011 Man Booker Prize for its “thoughtfulness”, The Sense of an Ending is a short novel that forces the reader to review his/her own life through the lens of the story.

After a brief period of excitement in adolescence, Tony Webster glides complacently through life. He marries a nice, predictable woman, finds a decent career, fathers a healthy, if unexceptional, daughter, amicably divorces and quietly retires. Rather than considering himself a “coward” in life, the now middle-aged Tony contends that he possesses “an instinct for survival, for self-¬preservation”. However, when his college girlfriend’s mother, referred to as Mrs. Ford, bequeaths to him a modest sum of money and the rights to an old school friend’s diary, Tony begins to question his reading of the past and the decisions he has made.

Much of the narrative of The Sense of an Ending is tinged with regret. Tony clearly considers his adolescence and college years spent with fellow idealists Colin, Alex, Adrian and Veronica his high point. He fondly and vividly remembers philosophically charged exchanges with teachers and discourses on living an existential life with his friends, all the while glossing over his relationship with his now ex-wife and the birth of his daughter. Even when the mystery of Mrs. Ford’s bequest begins to unravel, Tony never ceases to regret the course of his own life. Frustratingly, even at the end, Tony is incapable of finding meaning or beauty in the choices he has made and the life he has lead.

My frustration with the protagonist in The Sense of an Ending is the reason I enjoyed this book so much. I expected that once Tony uncovered the truth of the events of his youth, he would come to appreciate his own life and relationships. When he did not, I found myself dissatisfied and had to ask myself why this was the case. I love that Barnes leads his readers on a journey through Tony’s life for 163 pages and then asks them to continue that journey for themselves when the story ends. The Man Booker Prize is much deserved for this “thoughtful” novel.

‘Desperate Characters’ by Paula Fox

I came across Desperate Characters, Paula Fox’s spare but loaded 1970 novel, as a result of the frequent recommendation from the eminent Jonathan Franzen. In fact, in his introduction in the 1999 Norton edition of Desperate Characters, Franzen comes across not only as an insightful academic, but a rabid (yes, rabid!) Fox fan as well. While Franzen has his reasons for loving this book, I found myself appreciating it for its great ability to efficiently communicate the precarious nature of happiness in the average person.

Otto and Sophie Bentwood are prototypical upper middle-class Americans. Childless, they live in a fashionable brownstone in a newly gentrified section of Brooklyn, drive a Mercedes, and spend their Friday nights drinking cocktails at the abodes of their fellow forty-somethings. Despite their comfortable lifestyle and perceived professional success, something is missing in the lives of the Bentwoods; yet at the beginning of the novel, as they bicker about various trifles, they are frustratingly unable to communicate it. Then, after Sophie is bitten by a stray cat while generously trying to feed it, a series of everyday disasters occurs, forcing the couple to finally confront the unhappiness and anxiety that plagues them.

Though Desperate Characters suffered a few years out of print, possibly the main reason for the novel’s resurgence is its wonderfully executed realist style. As I read this novel, the tension in the Bentwoods’ lives was palpable. At times, especially during Otto and Sophie’s many arguments, I felt anxiety at the knowledge that at any time one of them would snap. However, the non-Otto/Sophie interactions offer no respite from this tension. When Sophie interacts with Charlie Russel, Otto’s emotional former business partner, or slips into a memory of her affair with the confused Francis Early, the reader never ceases to sense the breakdown on the horizon.

Especially remarkable about Desperate Characters is its concision. Somehow, Otto and Sophie have advanced to middle age without acknowledging the debilitating anxiety that besets them. Fox uses a brief period of time—a weekend—to not only bear witness to the resulting breakdown, but to examine the choices the couple has made over the course of their marriage that lead to it. Unbelievably, all of this action and introspection occurs in less than 160 pages. As many others have noted, despite its brevity, Desperate Characters does not feel like a short story or novella; it offers the fullness of experience that only a novel can.

Sometimes uncomfortable, but very satisfying, Desperate Characters is a great read. Now that it has been rediscovered, I have hope that its newfound readership will not let this classic slip out of print again.

Last Call at the Lobster

LAST NIGHT AT THE LOBSTER by Stewart O’Nan

Stewart O’Nan’s acclaimed novella LAST NIGHT AT THE LOBSTER is a worthy quickie.  The slim volume covers the last day of business at a Red Lobster in a working class neighborhood in Connecticut, experienced through the consciousness of Manny Deleon, the branch’s valorous manager.  During this emotionally tough day Manny is forced to reckon with an insubordinate staff, his residual romantic feelings for one of the waitresses and what to do about his pregnant girlfriend back at home.

The best part of this book is its emotional resonance.  Manny and his staff are placed in the precarious position of how to act when no longer enticed with the reward of retaining a good job.  While the great many of his employees either leave, vandalize or steal, a core few stick the day out, honorably, but with some reluctance.  At the same time, Manny must deal with Jacquie, his former girlfriend-on-the-side who appears to have gotten an abortion at some point during the relationship and is now going strong again with her boyfriend.  Manny doesn’t want to let her go, but in the end, realizes that practically speaking, he must.  Leaving their relationship behind leaves as strong of an imprint on Manny’s psyche as does the closing of what has become “his” Red Lobster.

While LAST NIGHT AT THE LOBSTER is engaging for many reasons, it also has its flaws.  My greatest concern is the style.  O’Nan has been dubbed “the bard of the working class,” a comment I would certainly support, but ultimately, the buoyant, conversational tone was not to my taste. O’Nan allows his characters to act true to form, however, the style only detracted from the weight of Manny’s plight.

I will say, though, that the style was partially saved by the flawless characterization of Manny.  While some of the supporting cast were one-dimensional, Manny shines as the leading book’s leading man.  Manny Deleon is a complete character, believably wrought with motives, feelings and a code of honor.

In all, LAST NIGHT AT THE LOBSTER is a good, light read.

The Art of Finding Home

BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, “HOUSE OF FLOWERS,” “A DIAMOND GUITAR,” and “A CHRISTMAS MEMORY” by Truman Capote

While the iconic novella BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S anchors this 50th anniversary multi-piece volume, all four stories included work harmoniously together.  The protagonists of BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, “HOUSE OF FLOWERS,” “A DIAMOND GUITAR,” and “A CHRISTMAS MEMORY” each focus on the concept of home.  The naive and insightful Holly Golightly seeks out a version of home that is different from Ottilie’s, Mr. Schaeffer’s and Buddy’s, but all four understand the import of finding it.

Holly Golightly is bold and beautiful, enigmatic and distant.  When the narrator meets her he, like nearly everyone who crosses her path, is intrigued.  Her past and present is revealed throughout the novella and she is ultimately painted as naive, innocent and trying to find home.  The concept of having “breakfast at Tiffany’s” motivates Holly on her quest.  She warms at the thought of spending time at Tiffany’s, a beautiful place where nothing feels wrong, and hopes to duplicate it everywhere she goes.

In “HOUSE OF FLOWERS,” Ottilie is essentially a Haitian whore who believes she has found love and a home with the arrival soon-to-be husband Royal Bonaparte.  Royal Bonaparte reminds Ottilie of herself, he is from Haiti (as opposed to her Domincan co-workers) and connected to country (as opposed to her city-dwelling friends).  Faced with the dilemma of staying with the only family she knows, her fellow “workers” Baby and Rosita, Ottilie ultimately chooses her natural home with Royal.

“A DIAMOND GUITAR” explores the theme of home further, introducing the reader to a convict who can only dream of returning it.  And reluctantly, dream he does.  When Tico Feo arrives with his glittering guitar Mr. Schaeffer cannot help but think of the past life he can never live again.  Mr. Schaeffer flirts with the idea of escape with Tico Feo but flounders, extinguishing any hope he could have once harbored of seeing home.

The Capote classic “A CHRISTMAS MEMORY” provides a warm remembrance, reminding the reader at the compilation’s close just what the other three protagonists have been agonizing over.  The memory is simple: Buddy and his elderly distant cousin plan for the Christmas holiday, baking fruitcakes for friends and dignitaries (President and Mrs. Roosevelt are recipients of the coveted cakes), chopping down a Christmas tree and making presents for the family.  The soul aches at the memory of such fondness and the idea of being tortured over it rings with perfect clarity.

Also connecting the four works is Capote’s unique talent for language.  The prose is crafted artfully and the stories are a pleasure to read because of it.  Phrases like “the lemony sun” pepper the collection, describing scenes and events with perfection.

BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S is a classic worthy of its own volume, but combined with three of Capote’s best short stories it is especially poignant.

Bleak is Nothing

The Passport by Herta Muller

I titled this review “Bleak is Nothing” because that overwrought adjective could be used to describe this novella, but shouldn’t.  This book does not describe a life that is bleak, it describes a life that is hopeless, futile.  The 2009 Nobel Prize winner’s plot is simple.  In a German village in Ceaucescu’s Romania after World War II the local miller, Windish, tries to obtain a passport for his family so that they may emigrate to West Germany.  Woven among vignettes describing life for Windisch and his wife both during and after the war, the reader learns that in order to obtain his passport Windisch must bribe the local militiaman and priest.  He foolishly attempts to offer free bags of flour but is inevitably forced to offer his daughter instead.  Windisch and family end up with their passports and leave the country.

Two primary themes emerge from this despairing novel.  First is the idea of sex.  Sex for the denizens of this village is not an experience for pleasure, or procreation for that matter.  The latter point is evidenced by Windisch’s daughter, Amalie’s easy access to birth control and Windisch’s wife, Katharine’s  hysterectomy.  Instead, sex is used as a means of barter, or leverage, for the women, and as a reprieve from daily suffering for the men.  A second theme is the notion of choice in the novel.  Due to the oppressive totalitarian regime, the characters in the book, as surely Ms. Muller was herself, are not given any freedoms, thus any choices.  The human psychological need for freedom and power is redirected and demonstrated via the characters’ views of sex, my first theme.

Amidst the dismal storyline is the internal moral struggle of the protagonist, Windisch.  Windisch fights the status quo until the bitter end, trying foolishly to bribe the militiaman and priest with flour to stave off the inevitable offering of his daughter.  Windisch takes out his anguish at this on his wife primarily, and his daughter at the end.  Throughout the book Windisch ridicules his wife for her method of survival during the war.  A powerful passage near the end of the novella demonstrates her offering of her body for food in order to withstand the brutal Russian winters.  Because she survives by essentially prostituting herself and his former lover, Barbara, dies, presumably not trading her body for food, Windisch is forced to reckon with his wife’s method’s effectiveness.  I believe it is because of this internal moral battle that Windisch is finally able to sacrifice his daughter and thus, emigrate from Romania.

This book is not for the average reader. Muller’s simple declarative sentences grow wearisome and the plot itself is nothing if not brutal.  However, a powerful experience is conveyed and it is for this reason that I will remember this book.