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…