The Girls of Slender Means, by Muriel Sparks is actually a very slender novel, and up until the last chapter, when the story unexpectedly made me cry, I would also have said that it was also a very slender story.
The book is set in 1945 in London. The girls live at a hostel called the May of Teck Club, which was founded by Queen Mary before she married King George. (She was known as Princess May of Teck). The girls are all poor and under thirty years of age, except for three older women who for reasons unknown, were allowed to stay on past the age of thirty when most were expected to leave the hostel.
The girls are a mixed bag. There is the beautiful Selina, who has oodles of lovers. Joanna, who has a captivating voice, teaches elocution and recites poetry and psalms. Jane works in publishing, which she calls “the world of books,” while writing fake letters to authors with the intention of having them write back to her so she can sell their letters (and autographs) to her boss. Nancy is a nondescript clergyman’s daughter who is having an affair with a married man. Dorothy tells the others of her filthy luck when she falls “preggers,” and Pauline pretends to the other girls that she has a lover.
One of the girls owns a Schiaparelli dress, which all of the girls who can fit the dress, borrow. They count calories and sunbake and laugh. It is wartime, with rationing in place. Food and other necessities are scarce and London is a dangerous place.
Each word in the book seems to have been carefully chosen and is exactly the right word. The humour is clever and occasionally even laugh out loud funny. The characters are very human and range from good to bad to wicked.
The story seemed very slight to me, until a terrible event in the plot turned me on my head. After this, I couldn’t read fast enough to find out what was going to happen, and if all of the girls would escape unscathed. Sadly, they didn’t, (I didn’t expect to get teary on the train over this book either, but I did).
I haven’t read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which is probably the author’s most well known book, but will make the effort soon.