The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera

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What a weird book! That’s possibly why I enjoyed it?!  The Awakening of Miss Prim follows an independent and well-educated woman accepting a librarian position in a rural corner of France. Little does Miss Prim know what a strange place she is making her home. The strangeness began with her employer, The Man in the Armchair. She can’t understand his strange ways, study of dead languages, and how he teaches all the village children from ancient texts and dusty classics. She identifies with him, yet rejects his beliefs and outlook on life. She thinks she may love him, but can’t risk anything. She doesn’t understand the women of the village who enjoy their businesses AND keeping their homes. She doesn’t understand the shutting out of outside society and that it’s ok to live and just be close to home. She doesn’t understand the importance placed on enjoying the mundane in life. A good meal, tea by the fireside, hospitality, and reading quietly.  She lacks understanding because she is so perfectly educated. You might say the life has been educated out of her…faith…goodness…beauty…everything has sort of drowned in all the accomplishments of her life. I had this vague irritation throughout and it came to me that Miss Prim was so self-focused and always frustrated that real life didn’t line up with what she believed was truth. I could empathise with her struggles, and yet my faith also compels a constant turning of my thoughts to my Lord and others. Miss Prim was too smart for religion or faith, and in fact, she is proud and disgusted by any semblance of faith. She sees it as a weakness. And yet…she is empty, searching, and lonely. I did feel for her in many ways and know I’ve battled her thoughts, questions. Even though her new little village is portrayed as some sort of utopia, she always is grasping at happiness.  Lulu Thiberville, an older woman of the village, isn’t well received by Miss Prim, with her opinion of young women striving instead of living, wearing them down and destroying them…

“The yearning you all display to prove your worth, to show that you know this and that, to ensure that you can have it all. The yearning to succeed and, even more, the yearning not to fail; the yearning not to be seen as inferior, but instead even as superior, simply for being exactly what you believe you are or rather what you’ve been made to believe you are. The inexplicable yearning for the world to give you credit simply for being woman.”

page 230

As the story draws to a close, we see Miss Prim starting thaw just a bit. Looking at this book through the lens of my faith, I feel that Miss Prim is missing so much by rejecting faith and really, love. As she leaves this village for a trip to Italy (which I see as another way of just searching for something to fill her void), she does the thing she resisted doing the whole time of her stay in the village. She visits the local monastery and speaks with the old monk…he wishes her a good trip and says,

“So seek beauty, Miss Prim. Seek it in the silence, in tranquility; seek it in the middle of the night and at dawn. Pause to close doors while you seek it, and don’t be surprised if it doesn’t reside in museums or palaces. Don’t be surprised if, in the end, you find beauty to be not Something, but Someone.”

pg 244

What is the picture the author was trying to paint here? I don’t know. A feminist, utopian, atheistic society is best? Or that faith is a weakness? Or that we can never be happy until we find ourselves, whatever that means?! Again, I’m not sure…remember this was a weird book. However, I walked away with a lot to chew on and different perspectives to consider. It made me care in a small way about Miss Prim and all the Miss Prim’s out there and even consider if I’ve been this way or am this way. Just flinging around, grasping, and floundering, instead of resting in my faith in the Lord Jesus. Life is a GIFT to be shared, given and savored, and I hope I never forget that truth.

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8 thoughts on “The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera

      1. Thanks, Amy. It’s a great book to discuss over a cup of coffee, isn’t it? (I did that with my friend Kim). To me her main idea was more ambitious than her abilities. It’s realism, yet it’s not possible, the children weren’t very real, the society they live looks like a sect at times. As you say, I think she lacks a positioning, and that shows through the book, it’s like a fantasy without a defined position at the base. She could have made it more a fantastic village… I’m not sure, but at one point, I got irritated by, for example, the constant tea/coffee and sweets eating whenever she met with others. It was a mix of our romantic view of rural and elitist. Like you, I didn’t like her treatment of faith -superficial-. It’s weird because it lacks ‘matter’, positioning, research, and experience/skill. But I don’t also want to sound as if it’s a waste of time reading it, because it’s not! It makes you think. She has ‘potential’, to me as a reader, I guess?

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      2. I love what you said here, Silvia! So you are familiar with this author? You have such a way of seeing deep under the surface of things. I’m not as good at that…I kinda just muddle through and take things at face value. Thanks for sharing what you thought!

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      3. I’m opinionated, Amy, 🙂 that’s all. I don’t know anything about her other than this book, but I think I briefly read about her, and she’s pretty young (nothing bad about that, 🙂 I think taking a book at face value is a very valuable way of reading. It’s funny, cause I’m always such an enthusiast of each book I read, and then I go through a more critical period, and then I switch to my enthusiasm… I think we need to be gentler with our contemporaries, they shouldn’t be measured by the more robust books we call classics. Literature needs to keep moving forward, and contemporary writers surely help for it to be alive. Will their books be remembered in the future? Maybe not most of them, but maybe a few of those will make it and become part of the heritage, the cultural legacy. It’s good to read them. (But at times, I just can’t help to contrast them with bigger authors or more rounded books, you know?, and I had talked about this book with a friend, so I had my thoughts sorted out, so to speak.

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  1. I read this book a couple winters ago. It was recommended by a friend. Yours is a well-written review. After I closed the book I had questions. Perhaps this is what the writer was seeking to do. By seeking to answer questions for ourselves, that arise, we may find something we hadn’t known or felt before. We see things we hadn’t seen before. I understand her premise that is shared by the widower in the story, that people can be too educated, so formally educated (at the expense of being at all self-educated) that they miss the forest for the trees. And I think some level of utopia is possible when like-mined people network within a community. From an outsider it would look incredible. The continual “teas” were distracting and a bit redundant, but perhaps the author wanted to show that these different sorts of characters had something in common – for most it is their Roman Catholic faith. After the last page I found myself continuing the story in my day-dreaming, tying up loose ends. Is it possible the author aimed at her readers doing this?

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    1. Maybe that was her intention. My friend Kim and I, who read it and discussed it after, also found ourselves speculating about a part II in our heads!
      I agree some level of utopia could be possible among like minded people, but it was to me, a bit incredulous, this society. However, there’s, as you say, Miss Andreola, much value in the questions that the book poses.
      I also find it weird, like Amy says. It’s, to me, a love-hate relationship. Not long after criticizing something in the book, I start to notice something of value in it.
      The dialogues between Miss Prim and her employer were good, and yet I keep thinking this scenario was a bit cliche, the place not very credible… I’m glad I read it, even if I can’t decide if I’ve liked it or not.

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    2. I’m so glad we are kindred spirits in books, and many other things, I suspect, Karen. 🙂 Thank you so much for your thoughts and the questions you proposed! I agree there are so many things worth thinking about in this book…part of what I enjoyed about it!

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