Book Review: The Magnificent Spinster by May Sarton


This review contains a giveaway.

One of the best reading chances I ever took was to buy a stack of May Sarton books without knowing anything about her. I had seen her name over the years but knew absolutely nothing else. Then in 2008 we were in a very cute used bookshop in Woodstock, Vermont back when I spied this stack of May Sarton paperbacks in old Norton editions and for some reason decided it was time I check her out. But I didn’t just buy one, I bought the whole stack. That was one of the best reading gambles I ever took Three years later I have read many of those volumes and added several more to my collection. Sarton wrote wonderful journals and wonderful novels. She also wrote poetry but I haven’t looked at that yet. In both 2009 and 2010 her books made it into my top 10 for the year.

So what did I think of my latest Sarton experience? It was fantastic.The Magnificent Spinster was the kind of book that I didn’t want to put down, but even more important it was the kind of book that I actually relished reading slowly. I tend to be too results oriented to ever slow down my reading too much–I feel I need to finish things–but with this book, I really did enjoy going slowly.

In The Magnificent Spinster, 70-year old Cam decides to write a novel about her 50-year friendship with Jane Reid who has just passed away. I haven’t done the research, but my guess is that the novel is based more than a little on the book’s dedicatee, Anne Longfellow Thorpe (1894-1977). Before each chapter there is a nonfiction-style (but fictional) prologue that sets up the fictionalization of Thorpe’s life in the guise of Jane Reid. But Cam’s prologues become just as much a part of the Jane Reid story as the chapters themselves. It kind of reminded me of the layered narrative structure in The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, but I don’t even want to make that comparison because the Sarton wonderfully readable and so full of joy and life in a way that the Lessing is not.

The Magnificent Spinster is cosy, cosy, cosy, but with feminist, political twists and some somber earnestness that elevates it to something more profound. Parts of it reminded me of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn but it also had a Pepysian quality as WWI, the Spanish Civil War, WWII, the McCarthy Communist witch hunts and Vietnam all scroll through proceedings. And these aren’t really Pymsian spinsters. As much as I love Pym, the women in The Magnificent Spinster would never be as complacent or docile as Pym’s excellent women.

You should read this novel if any of the following things appeal to you:

  • Stories of deep, abiding friendships
  • Idyllic summers on an island in Maine
  • A multi-generational story told through the lens of the women
  • Lots of great housekeeping details (linen changing, bath drawing, travel arranging, brownie baking, flower gathering, etc.)
  • Career minded women living against gender expectations in the early 20th century
  • Warm, gregarious characters determined to live full, exuberant lives
  • Pre-Stonewall Lesbians (just a few, although they all might have been)

It isn’t often that I get tears in my eyes when I read a book, but the scenes where Ruth, Cam’s partner of 20 years dies was so beautifully rendered. (This is not a spoiler, the fact of her death is mentioned very early on.)  There is so much about this book that made me love it. If you haven’t read any Sarton, I think this would be a good place to start. It is a wonderful combination of her novels and her journals.

And, for one lucky random person who posts a comment there will be a free copy of this book. As a result of all my Sarton book buying, I appear to have acquired three copies. I not only have two old Norton editions (the one I read was a paperback, but it turns out I also have the hardcover edition) but I also have a more modern Norton edition. It is the newer one that I am prepared to send anywhere in the world to someone who wants to read it (not just collect another free book). This is for the reader in you, not the bibliophile…

25 thoughts on “Book Review: The Magnificent Spinster by May Sarton

  1. bookssnob March 24, 2011 / 12:55 pm

    Well, I'm sold. This book, and May Sarton, sound incredible. I had never heard of her before but a little bit of quick online research has shown me that I certainly should have done! If I don't win I'm off to the library to check her out – thank you Thomas!


  2. Ruthiella March 24, 2011 / 1:24 pm

    Most of my reading now is based on recommendations from friends, bloggers, book reviews and “best of” lists. Reading this way has been rewarding in many cases, but regardless, every book involves certain expectations on my part. So I envy you your happy discovery of May Sarton. It is great when things like that happen.


  3. Amy March 24, 2011 / 1:40 pm

    I have actually read a little Sarton and loved it, and always meant to read more, so yeah–put my name in the hat!


  4. ArchitectDesign™ March 24, 2011 / 1:42 pm

    It sounds delightful and touching: I'll have to add it to my reading list, win or not.


  5. harriet March 24, 2011 / 1:45 pm

    I've just about heard of her but never read her and now I want to! Great review — thanks.


  6. Jeane March 24, 2011 / 4:46 pm

    I'd love to have a chance at that book. I've only read a few May Sarton but very much enjoyed every one. This is one I hadn't even heard of!


  7. mel u March 24, 2011 / 5:10 pm

    I first heard of May Sarton in learning of her relationship to Elizabeth Bowen-I would love to win this book and thanks for offering it


  8. mel u March 24, 2011 / 5:10 pm

    I first heard of May Sarton in learning of her relationship to Elizabeth Bowen-I would love to win this book and thanks for offering it


  9. StuckInABook March 24, 2011 / 7:01 pm

    Having just enjoyed a May Sarton novel (which I will write about soon!) I'd love to be in with a chance for this.


  10. Laura March 24, 2011 / 9:09 pm

    You should read this novel if any of the following things appeal to you: …
    Well what's not to like in that list? Sounds fab and like others, this is an author I need to learn more about, whether I win or not.


  11. Mystica March 24, 2011 / 9:40 pm

    I like the reasons why I should read the novel – they all appeal to me so please throw my name in the hat. Thanks for sharing.


  12. Cozy in Texas March 24, 2011 / 9:44 pm

    Thanks for the review of this story. I'll be looking out for these.


  13. Farheen March 25, 2011 / 1:41 am

    It is very seldom that one comes across a good novel which revolves, primarily, around women. Lessing has disappointed me so much that I'm almost afraid of her.

    My best friend has moved abroad,summers are here in Karachi and I am trying my best to write a collection of short stories. Can Sarton be a source of inspiration?


  14. motheretc March 25, 2011 / 9:05 am

    May Sarton is a name I have heard as well, but have never picked up any of her books. Now I'm intrigued.


  15. Stranger March 25, 2011 / 11:21 am

    This comment has been removed by the author.


  16. Stranger March 25, 2011 / 11:24 am

    I just added this to my library delayed holds list; thanks for bring Sarton to my attention!
    The above comment was mine; I hit the wrong button.


  17. Thomas at My Porch March 25, 2011 / 11:25 am

    Rachel: Even though she was born in Belgium her New England focus is so wonderful, I think Sarton would be great for your reading America quest.

    Ruthiella: It certainly was a nice surprise.

    Amy: And so nice that she wrote rather prolifically.

    Stefan: Good to hear.

    Harriet: I am glad I piqued your interest.

    Jeane: Then you will love this one.

    Mel: I didn't know about that relationship. Must explore.

    Simon: I am dying to hear your take on your Sarton experience.

    Laura: I know, it has so much that is good about it.

    Mystica: Good luck.

    Ann: Once you look for them they are pretty easy to find.

    Farheen: I understand your Lessing worry. I have liked some of her stuff quite a bit even though the mammoth Golden Notebook was not one that I liked much.

    Mother: She seems to be one of those authors whose name people recognize but they don't know why.


  18. Susan in TX March 25, 2011 / 9:10 pm

    I always appreciate the way you write about an author you've really enjoyed. You make them so irresistible! Don't put my name in the hat, though, because I haven't gotten to the Lost Traveller yet. I'm doing my best to read from the TBR shelves and I've got to quit adding to them! I am putting Sarton's name on my list of people to read, though. :) Thanks for the review.


  19. music-books-steve March 27, 2011 / 12:20 am

    When out mutual friend John's mother was in town a while back (before I worked at the bookstore), we visited the store I now work at. When comparing purchases in the car afterwards, coincidentally, I had bought the Sarton poems and his mom had bought a Sarton novel or two.


  20. Jennifer Dee December 22, 2011 / 5:35 am

    I am new to your blog so it means that I am very late to this post. I love May Sarton but have not heard of this book. I have just been over to amazon and have ordered the book but of course it will take a while to get to me. Still something to look forward to.


  21. Jennifer Dee January 12, 2012 / 4:57 am

    I have just finished reading this wonderful book. Different from the previous May Sarton books that I've read, which have mostly been her journals. I shall look out for more of her fiction. Thank you very much for recommending this book.


  22. Zoe, ontheroad December 13, 2014 / 6:47 pm

    Just discovered your review and blog after I looked up the book on google. Just finished reading a rather remarkable interview with Sarton, of whom I am a great fan, at the Paris Review and she mentions this book is coming. Well, it obviously came and your review makes it ever so appealing. Thanks very much.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.