Synopses & Reviews
(Book Jacket Status: Jacketed)
The brevity of Muriel Spark's novels is equaled only by their brilliance. These four novels, each a miniature masterpiece, illustrate her development over four decades. Despite the seriousness of their themes, all four are fantastic comedies of manners, bristling with wit.
Spark's most celebrated novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, tells the story of a charismatic schoolteacher's catastrophic effect on her pupils. The Girls of Slender Means is a beautifully drawn portrait of young women living in a hostel in London in the giddy postwar days of 1945. The Driver's Seat follows the final haunted hours of a woman descending into madness. And The Only Problem is a witty fable about suffering that brings the Book of Job to bear on contemporary terrorism.
All four novels give evidence of one of the most original and unmistakable voices in contemporary fiction. Characters are vividly etched in a few words; earth-shaking events are lightly touched on. Yet underneath the glittering surface there is an obsessive probing of metaphysical questions: the meaning of good and evil, the need for salvation, the search for significance.
At the staid Marcia Blaine School for Girls, in Edinburgh, Scotland, teacher extraordinaire Miss Jean Brodie is unmistakably, and outspokenly, in her prime. She is passionate in the application of her unorthodox teaching methods, in her attraction to the married art master, Teddy Lloyd, in her affair with the bachelor music master, Gordon Lowther, and—most important—in her dedication to "her girls," the students she selects to be her crème de la crème. Fanatically devoted, each member of the Brodie set—Eunice, Jenny, Mary, Monica, Rose, and Sandy—is "famous for something," and Miss Brodie strives to bring out the best in each one. Determined to instill in them independence, passion, and ambition, Miss Brodie advises her girls, "Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth, and Beauty come first. Follow me."
And they do. But one of them will betray her.
"Freddie's" is the familiar name of the Temple Stage School, which supplies London's West End theaters with child actors for everything from Shakespeare to musicals to the Christmas pantomime. Its proprietress, Freddie Wentworth, is a formidable woman of unknown age and murky background who brings anyone she encounters under her spell -- so common an occurrence that it is known as "being Freddied." At her school, we meet dour Pierce, a teacher hopelessly smitten with enchanting Hannah; Jonathan, a child actor of great promise, and his slick rival Mattie; and Joey Blatt, who has wicked plans to rescue Freddie's from insolvency. Up to its surprising conclusion, At Freddie's is thoroughly beguiling.
“A jewel of a book.” —Daily Mail
It is the 1960s, in London’s West End, and Freddie is the formidable proprietress of the Temple Stage School, which supplies child actors for everything from Shakespeare to musicals to the Christmas pantomime. Of unknown age and provenance, Freddie is a skirt-swathed enigma—a woman who by sheer force of character and single-minded thrust has turned herself and her school into a national institution. Anyone who is anyone must know Freddie.
Filled with unique and hilarious insights into the theatrical world, At Freddie’s is a beguiling story for those of us who sometimes pretend to be something we are not.
“Love, fear, class, ambition, even death—it's all in here, but so elegantly presented that you've finished your plate before you even think to ask about the ingredients.” —National Public Radio
Beautiful Chiara is the last of the Ridolfi, a Florentine family of long lineage and eccentric habits. She is smitten with Salvatore, a brilliant but penniless doctor, a rational man who wants nothing to do with romance. This is the story of how these two--with the best intentions, the kindest of instincts, and the most meddlesome of friends--make each other wonderfully miserable inside.
“A delectable comedy of manners.” —Boston Globe
The Ridolfi are a Florentine family of long lineage and little money. It is 1955, Italy is still struggling back after the war, and the family, like its decrepit villa and farm, has seen better days. Among the Ridolfi, only eighteen-year-old Chiara shows anything like vitality. But it’s a vitality matched by innocence—a dangerous combination, to herself and to all who love her.
Chiara sets her heart on the bull-headed Salvatore, a brilliant young doctor from the south who resolved long ago to be emotionally dependent on no one. Stymied, she calls on her resourceful English girlfriend, Barney, to help her make the impossible match. And so ensues a comedy of errors, in which guileless lovers, with the best of intentions, considerable charm, and the kindest of instincts, succeed in making one another thoroughly and astonishingly miserable.
“An exquisite mosaic, where every tiny piece is part of a world.” —A. S. Byatt, Threepenny Review
In eighteenth-century Germany, the impetuous student of philosophy who will later gain fame as the Romantic poet Novalis seeks his father's permission to wed his true philosophy -- a plain, simple child named Sophie. The attachment shocks his family and friends. This brilliant young man, betrothed to a twelve-year-old dullard! How can it be? A literary sensation and a bestseller in England and the United States, The Blue Flower was one of eleven books- and the only paperback- chosen as an Editor's Choice by the New York Times Book Review. The 1997 National Book Critics Circle Award Winner in Fiction.
“An astonishing book . . . Fitzgerald’s greatest triumph.” —New York Times Book Review
The Blue Flower is set in the age of Goethe, in the small towns and great universities of late eighteenth-century Germany. It tells the true story of Friedrich von Hardenberg, a passionate, impetuous student of philosophy who will later gain fame as the Romantic poet Novalis. Fritz seeks his father’s permission to wed his “heart's heart,” his “spirit's guide”—a plain, simple child named Sophie von Kühn. It is an attachment that shocks his family and friends. Their brilliant young Fritz, betrothed to a twelve-year-old dullard? How can this be?
The irrationality of love, the transfiguration of the commonplace, the clarity of purpose that comes with knowing one’s own fate—these are the themes of this beguiling novel, themes treated with a mix of wit, grace, and mischievous humor unique to the art of Penelope Fitzgerald.
“An extraordinary imagining . . . an original masterpiece.” —Hermione Lee, Financial Times
On the Battersea Reach of the Thames, a mixed bag of eccentrics live in houseboats. Belonging to neither land nor sea, they belong to one another. There is Maurice, a homosexual prostitute; Richard, a buttoned-up ex-navy man; but most of all there's Nenna, the struggling mother of two wild little girls. How each of their lives complicates the others is the stuff of this perfect little novel.
Winner of the Booker Prize
On the Battersea Reach of the Thames, a mixed bag of the slightly disreputable, the temporarily lost, and the patently eccentric live on houseboats, rising and falling with the great river’s tides. Belonging to neither land nor sea, they cling to one another in a motley yet kindly society. There is Maurice, by occupation a male prostitute, by happenstance a receiver of stolen goods. And Richard, a buttoned-up ex-navy man whose boat dominates the Reach. Then there is Nenna, a faithful but abandoned wife, the diffident mother of two young girls running wild on the waterfront streets.
It is Nenna’s domestic predicament that, as it deepens, draws the relations among this scrubby community together into ever more complex and comic patterns. The result is one of Fitzgerald’s greatest triumphs, a novel the Booker judges deemed “flawless.”
“A marvelous achievement: strong, supple, humane, ripe, generous, and graceful.” —Sunday Times
About the Author
PENELOPE FITZGERALD wrote many books small in size but enormous in popular and critical acclaim over the past two decades. Over 300,000 copies of her novels are in print, and profiles of her life appeared in both The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. In 1979, her novel Offshore won Britain's Booker Prize, and in 1998 she won the National Book Critics Circle Prize for The Blue Flower. Though Fitzgerald embarked on her literary career when she was in her 60's, her career was praised as "the best argument.. for a publishing debut made late in life" (New York Times Book Review). She told the New York Times Magazine, "In all that time, I could have written books and I didn’t. I think you can write at any time of your life." Dinitia Smith, in her New York Times Obituary of May 3, 2000, quoted Penelope Fitzgerald from 1998 as saying, "I have remained true to my deepest convictions, I mean to the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong, and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities, which I have done my best to treat as comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it?"