Spanish debut novelist Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera joins the ranks of bestselling international fiction authors with her book, The Awakening of Miss Prim. (For more international fiction in translation, see our reviews of Papers in the Wind, The Impossible Exile, and Sweet Dreams.) The English translation of the novel, published by Atria Books, remains charming and fluid throughout; it reads like an updated Victorian romance, which is a commendation both to the author and to the translator, Sonia Soto.
The Awakening of Miss Prim follows, as one might suppose, the story of Miss Prim, a young woman who leaves behind her busy city life to take a job as a librarian in a remote village of France. San Ireneo de Arnois is not like most places, however. It is devoted to the simplicity of life, an enclave of exiles who have fled the bustling outside world in order to live purposefully, surrounded by intellectual discussions, literature, family, and a great many teatimes. Miss Prim finds herself bewildered by the village, and not the least of her disconcertment comes from her employer, who is only ever named as the Man in the Wingchair. He and his household, which includes a number of precocious and insightful children, seem to exist just to contradict everything Miss Prim has ever known or believed in: traditional education, a pragmatic attitude, and most of all, a sense of delicacy.
The Man in the Wingchair is nothing if not blunt and argumentative, and Miss Prim is forced to defend her beliefs against a more worthy opponent than she has ever encountered. Despite their differences, which become more apparent each day, Miss Prim and the Man in the Wingchair strike up a tenuous friendship and respect for one another. This does not, however, stop them from heatedly discussing everything from the literary importance of Little Women to the purpose of religion and faith.
Yet, elegantly and without fanfare, Miss Prim begins to feel at home in the village. She finds friends and a sense of belonging in the San Ireneo Feminist League (a group of women who decide everything from working hours to Christmas decorations), and with Horacio, a kind man with a generous ear. As Miss Prim realizes that she’d like to find romance in the village, the Feminist League is enlisted to find her a husband, as they always do for the young women in the village. This search leads to a number of discoveries for Miss Prim, including who the mysterious “question mark” is on the League’s list of possible spousal options.
Written in a style and tradition reminiscent of Pride and Prejudice, The Awakening of Miss Prim tackles what it means to step outside your comfort zone, and how travel and new perspectives can change your entire outlook. Without giving too much away, I can say that the novel did not fall into the trap of predictability; while it is heavily influenced by Victorian and Regency era stories, it is not a carbon copy. Ultimately, it is a coming of age story, a romance, a reflection on past and modernity, and an utterly sensible piece of escapist literature. An ideal summer read for the beach, airplane, or (even better) the train car.
Publisher: Atria Books
Pub date: July 8, 2014