The podcast version of this review can be found here.
I feel almost silly trying to write a review of The Awakening of Miss Prim by Madrid writer Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera when Joseph Pearce’s piece in The Imaginative Conservative is light years better than anything I would write. Please understand that my attempt here is not to match his eloquent review. Instead, I hope to draw more attention to this remarkable book by giving it a home on our site as well.
“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.”
The Awakening of Miss Prim was recommended to my bookclub about two years ago. Most of us knew next to nothing about this international bestseller when we scampered off to Amazon to fill up our shopping carts. Since then, I have purchased three or four more copies of this pretty paperback. All of which were purchased to replace copies that were being loaned out. Each time a new group of friends decided to fall in love with San Ireneo, I would make the trip with them and would need a copy to read.
“…this mysterious prosperity was the result of a young man’s tenacity and an old monk’s wisdom… San Ireneo de Arnois was, in fact, a flourishing colony of exiles from the modern world seeking a simple, rural life.”
In my first reading of this book, I felt like I was having a homecoming. Prudencia Prim is an old soul who was born in the wrong time. “Few could admit to being the victim of a fatal historical error, she told herself proudly. Few people lived, as she did, with the constant feeling of having been born in the wrong time and in the wrong place.” Like many of us women today, she finds her inner femininity to be irrepressible despite embracing the progressive lie that she needs to be androgynous, cold, calculating, precise, and somehow that will empower her feminine genius. The work of maintaining that dehumanizing balance is, in fact, anything but empowering for Miss Prim. I confess to struggling with a similar strain when I was coming of age.
When Miss Prim arrives in San Ireneo, she is flabbergasted by the antiquated and narrow-minded prejudices of her employer, The Man in the Wing Chair. In a play on Pride and Prejudice, much of the book teases out the tension between these two opposites. Miss Prim is irreligious, well-read, but through a progressive lens, and an advocate for modern feminism. The Man in the Wing Chair is a scholar of the classics, a daily mass Catholic with fervent religious convictions, and gentlemanly in his old-fashioned manners. At first blush they appear to be total opposites, but Fenollera renders more complex characters than that. Miss Prim doesn’t resent gentlemanly manners, she is just suspicious of The Man in the Wing Chair. When she isn’t feeling insecure, she appreciates being treated with old-fashioned respect. The Man in the Wing Chair is not quite the picture of perfection. While most of his prejudices are grounded in beautiful traditions, some are just errors in judgement. The more we learn of each of the characters, the more perfectly imperfect they become.
As Prudencia settles into the community of San Ireneo, we meet a cast of characters who are refugees from the dehumanizing, fast-paced, tradition-less, progressive modern world. Each has retreated from the world they believe debases the human experience, frays the nerves, and seeks to alienate man from his Creator. The community, built near a monastery, by The Man in the Wing Chair, is a fictionalized version of what many Benedict Option communities are seeking to build. When Rod Dreher was working on his new book, The Benedict Option, someone suggested Miss Prim to his wife. In this post, Dreher explains that his wife told him that Fenollera had captured in fiction the essence of what he had been writing about for years.
Ultimately, Miss Prim is stretched. So too is her employer. More importantly, both realize that they are heading towards the precipice of romance. Unlike Pride and Prejudice, The Man in the Wing Chair, has truly good reasons for not allowing that to happen. While Lizzie Bennet’s situation was materially objectionable, Miss Prim’s is spiritual.
When we read this book in our book club, a number of readers thought that the book was unsatisfying because most of the supporting characters are mere caricatures. Initially, I half-heartedly agreed them. It is true that we never get much to feast on by way of the individual characters. I think, however, that that is because the community itself is one character. I think this is by design. Each person Miss Prim interacts with is just an expression of the community.
In his review, Joseph Pearce quotes Evelyn Waugh. “Conversion,” Waugh wrote, “is like stepping across the chimney piece out of a Looking-Glass world, where everything is an absurd caricature, into the real world God made; and then begins the delicious process of exploring it limitlessly.” I think that Fenollera is giving us a sense of this Looking-Glass world. As Prudencia falls into this community, the community itself becomes so substantial and so real that it feels surreal compared to what she knows, so she resists engaging. Because she doesn’t engage, we don’t get to engage with the characters. But, as Waugh indicates, the more she is in the community, the more she realizes how absurd the modern world is. I think that we don’t get much characterization because Prudencia is keeping one foot in the modern world and one foot in San Ireneo. She can’t focus on anyone or anything therefore, we can’t either.
Near the end of the book, Prudencia makes a big change. I won’t spoil, and frankly, it would be impossible to spoil. Fenollera leaves us breadcrumbs, but we never have any real resolve on what is happening and what will happen. This bothered me a lot when I read it the first time. In subsequent readings, I grew to appreciate it. I think that the way this book ends is a testimony to the reality that life is always shrouded in mystery.
If you have read the book and wonder what is really happening in the end, let me give one place to study: look at her coffee order and the exchange with the waiter. I can take no credit for the discovery of this tell-tale clue as a friend noticed it and pointed it out to me.