The Awakening of Miss Prim, by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera, is that rare thing of a novel that only turns up every once in a while, and when it does, it deserves to be indulged in. Read it slowly, so that you can treat yourself to every word and each idea as they come to life and start to dance on the pages.
Prudencia Prim, an accomplished and educated woman, leaves everything behind to take a post as a librarian in the village of San Ireneo. She is to sort her employer’s vast library, he being the man in the winged chair, a mysterious gentleman with firm ideas about life and education. Before long, Miss Prim discovers that all the residents of the village, in this far-flung corner of the world, share her employer’s ideas, and are cultivating a very different – yet quite traditional – way of life. As Miss Prim begins to take tea and eat freshly baked cakes with her new friends, she begins to learn lessons that no amount of education could have prepared her for.
Fenollera’s bestseller is a difficult novel to describe; it is one that has to be experienced. It was so much more than I expected. I expected a lovely little story about a woman who discovers a new town, and maybe even finds love. What I discovered was wonderful philosophical discussion and debate about such topics as marriage, formal education and even feminism, all wrapped inside a delightful story of a woman who moves to a new town and maybe finds love. We explore these topics from the view of Miss Prim, an outsider to the village, and it is through her eyes listening to the opinions of the villagers that we learn, as she does, of the alternative options to “how things are”. I couldn’t help exploring where I stood on the subjects as they came up, and questioning why I hold some of the beliefs that I do.
The village of San Ireneo was a bit like something from a fairytale for me, and I would move there in a heartbeat, if only it existed. There was such a timeless quality to it: it could have been yesterday or a hundred years ago. The village, born of Fenollera’s imagination, captures the ideals that many of us who oppose the fast-pace, consumerist base, higher-education focus of contemporary life would prefer. It is an enchanting, simple place that takes the reader back in time, and is, in my opinion, the real hero of the story.
The characters are equally charming. Miss Prim makes the perfect outsider, moving in with her strong ideas and moral principals: the ideal starting place to then be challenged by the villagers, and over time understand things in a different way. She has flaws that make her very relatable, and has an air of mystery that keeps her intriguing. Not as much as the man in the winged chair, Miss Prim’s employer, however. I found myself wishing I could find out more about him – and that Fenollera would give him a name, but after a while I found that not knowing felt like the right thing, that he should remain a little elusive. Miss Prim and the man in winged chair reminded me a lot of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and there relationship, also, was not disimilar. As you would expect, additionally, there is a wonderful and colourful array of villagers who each bring their own flavour to the novel.
What I loved most about The Awakening of Miss Prim was Fenollera’s style. Her novel has been translated from the original Spanish and the translation has managed to bring with it the poetic feel of Spanish writing. There is an intelligence to Fenollera’s writing, and a lot of literary reference, making it a book that would appeal particularly to readers who enjoy intelligent novels, but also to those who adore books (there is a lot to be said about books in this book).
The Awakening of Miss Prim is a thought provoking and inspiring novel about love, companionship, education, and life. It will change the way you view the world, and – hopefully – will stay with you long after you have finished reading.
Read our interview with Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera.