Spark’s modern classic was published before the Booker Prize was established but towers over two of this year’s finalists
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (HarperPerennial, 160 pp., $13.95, paperback) didn’t appear on my recent list good books with fewer than 200 pages www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/08/24/, which focused on less well-known titles. But this modern classic by the late Scottish novelist Muriel Spark has been on my mind a lot since the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize was announced on Sept. 6. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie missed a shot at the Booker by dint of its publication in 1962, six years before the award began. But neither of the 2007 finalists that I’ve read, On Chesil Beach and Mister Pip, can touch this brilliant psychological study of female power as deployed by a teacher at an Edinburgh girls’ school in the early 1930s and her teenage acolytes. The 1969 movie version included a memorable star turn by Maggie Smith without capturing the most remarkable aspect of the book: It is a masterpiece of tone. Spark neither sentimentalizes nor demonizes her heroine, but describes her with the kind of cool detachment rarely found in novels about the sexually overheated world of girls’ and boys’ schools. Any book group could spend hours talking about the title alone: Was Miss Jean Brodie really “in her prime”? Or did she merely persuade her students – and herself – of it?
Links: Reading group guide at the HarperCollins site www.harpercollins.com. Background on Spark at the National Library of Scotland www.nls.uk/murielspark/. Spark was a finalist for the first Man Booker International Prize www.manbookerinternational.com, awarded in 2005 to the Albania’s Ismail Kadare. For information on the movie search the Internet Movie Database www.imdb.com for the title of the book.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.