I‘ve always liked well written, Jane Austen inspired, christian romance novels. For some reason, most chick lit titles would leave me feeling empty and I’d forget all about it the next day. Maybe because they play on your senses and not rationality. It doesn’t make me question and reflect on my own virtues or there lack of. Maybe it’s just me, but that’s how I feel.
Then, there are novels such as The Awakening of Miss Prim by Spanish writer Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera that really do make me reflect on them days later. It’s a story about Prudencia Prim, a self-realized young woman with a remarkable academic titles in her CV. Although she majored International Relations, Political Science and Anthropology, has a PhD in Sociology and is an expert in Library Sciences and Russian medieval art, she seems like a woman without professional ambitions in the fields of study she was expert in. That’s why she leaves a 9 to 5 job and applies for the position of private librarian in San Ireneo de Arnois, a remote French village that, although geographically a part of the modern world, its way of life is far from it. There are no major business there or factories, only small town shops producing quality items that seem to be sufficient for its inhabitants to lead a peaceful life. Sort of like family economy run village. San Ireneo is a simple life-centered little town where people encourage traditional values such as family and marriage above everything else, community gatherings, faith and living according to your abilities regardless of what you majored in. Like a pharmacist turning art teacher because there’s no need for two pharmacies in the village or a doctor running a bakery. Apart from the two main characters, the author introduces us with a couple more who represent the simple life of San Ireneo de Arnois. Now, that doesn’t mean everyone in the village is religious or even has a perfect life. It’s not a creepy new age commune. No one leads a perfect life, but they choose to live for what really matters.
Prudencia finds herself living in a rustic mansion, taking care of its private library whose owner’s overwhelming love for antiquity and religious works leaves her buried in rows and rows of dusty books that need catalogization. Now, the owner, referred to as the Man in the Wing Chair is a handsome scholar, taking care of his late sister’s four children and giving them classical education filled with Roman, Greek and Catholic influences. He’s a religious man, Daily Mass goer and a professor of extinct languages who’s family fortune he inherited made him humble. His wisdom exceeds the one of an average man, but when debating, he has a note of arrogance and slightly underestimating the person he’s talking to. Especially Miss Prim who likes to challenge his way of life, religion and the unconventional ways he’s raising the children, completely disregarding formal education provided by the government.
On one end, you have Miss Prim who doesn’t believe in marriage nor is religious and is often triggered by the man’s arrogance. On the other hand, we have the Man in the Wing Chair who’s conversion from skepticism made him the man he is today. The two couldn’t have more different outlooks on life, but soon, Prudencia will get to realize that life should be enjoyed and not studied, eventually falling in love with the place and its people. One in particular.
I must say, I really enjoyed the book. Personally, I’m a traditionalist and the general theme of the novel goes hand in hand with the way I look at the world. I do believe marriage and family should be above any business, especially when it comes to women these days. The book is a Chestertonian (who she often quotes) response to today’s modern world that’s, in my opinion, upside down and its noise is deafening.
I did find parts of myself in the character of Prudencia Prim. I have a masters degree in history, but I only did it because I loved the science and, sort of like her, I never really wanted to gain a professional success in the field. Sure, I am qualified and love to teach history, but that’s it. I’m satisfied with staying at this level, loving history for what it is. It’s sort of where photography and creativity comes in. I didn’t study it, but I find it equally important as history, in my life. I believe that’s the similarity Miss Prim and I have — not trail blazing or trying to be some acclaimed historian. Also, I’ve always thought I’m nor here nor there, not having a specific goal when it comes to profession. Essentially, that’s what keeps Miss Prim in San Ireneo. Although an academic, her real self appreciates the simple life, often highlighting she was born in a wrong time and place.
However, this isn’t where our similarities end; both her and I roll eyes quite hastily, when it’s not really needed, don’t like to be proved wrong and have certain pride to our characters. I feel like we’re both humble in lifestyle, but quite proud in the matters of wisdom and views. I can see why the Man in the Wing Chair could always get a reaction out of her. He challenged her views and, often than not, she agreed with him even when she wasn’t aware of it. It’s what made her fall in love with him, in the end.
Although the Man in the Wing Chair is the other half of the focus, the novel truly portrays the awakening of one woman and it slightly touches on the issues of distorted feminism and what it (in my opinion) should be. As the woman of the world, Prudencia was surprised to find a Feminist League in such a traditional village, but little did she know the league was about resolving real local issues woman face, such as one being mistreated by her boss. Like I said, San Ireneo isn’t Pleasantville. Also, they celebrate woman’s femininity and recognize what most women, deep inside, really want — a family, as well as pointing out men and women are different, but complement each other in beautiful ways, which I happen to agree with. This book isn’t for social justice warriors or militant feminists who think men are horrible. I might be harsh, but it might not be their cup of tea.
I believe the book is for those who understand the meaning of faith in their lives or have nothing against reading a book about traditional values. Although subtle in approach with hints of Catholicism, this, in it’s essence, is a spiritual novel, taking Prudencia on a journey to reach the final step in her conversion. What I like about the the book is that her conversion happened after she left the village, when she was faced with the harsh truth that his and hers views will never overlap and will eventually cause them to part ways, down the line. She leaves for Italy and sort of finds herself and God. Only then she could freely decide to return. The book highlights the struggle couples in love face when one is devout to faith and the other could live without. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but if faith is something you feel strongly about, having the chance to fully share it with the person you love is the foundation of a Christian marriage. It’s what Miss Prim comes to realize in the story. This is a light read with deep philosophical thoughts in the background. I read the book in the span of two days and I still think about it. It’s a read you will either like or won’t like, but I guess that’s the case with all books, isn’t it?
Now, I’d like to step away from my own self-reflection and dive into what I liked and disliked about the book, the style and the characters. I loved the writing style and the witty/humorous exchange of banter between our two main characters. I feel they were spot on, highlighting both of their weak and strong points; his arrogance yet clarity versus her silly actions, but caring female mind. I liked the fact they both came from academic backgrounds and sort of bickered their way into love. They both ended up wanting the same thing, only coming from different angles and unique journeys of their own. I really enjoyed their moments and that’s something I wish the book had more of. I mean, I kinda fell in love with the Man in the Wing Chair and wanted to hear more about what he had to say. At first, I didn’t like Miss Prim because she came off as cold and academic. It’s safe to say, I was annoyed by her. However, as I kept reading, she began to change and could see all the colors of emotion in her character, from jealousy to heartbreak and I could begin to see myself in her.
What I didn’t like is the ending. It’s not a total dislike, but I feel like it was left hanging in the air. She decided to return, but you don’t really find out whether she married him or not, even if she actually arrived back to the village. I mean, it’s the obvious outcome, but the author decided to leave it up to our imagination. That’s the only thing I didn’t like as much as the rest of the book. Also, the name of the Man in the Wing Chair. We never get to find it out. I’d sure like to know, but I understand the Man of the story is supposed to be so much more than just a name. I feel like I could see myself in the character of Prudencia Prim, but I was left mesmerized more by him. I’m not sure if that was intentional, but I feel like the author could have elaborated on their story more, not just bits of everything. Maybe cut down on the other characters or simply make the story longer, so all of their stories could fit nicely.
In the end, I did love the book. Like I said, it left me thinking about the main message which is the idea that going back to basics is what every person needs. Also, the message of the peace only God can give is priceless. I could see the calm and peaceful life in the Man in the Wing Chair where as Miss Prim had battles of her own, until she finally found her sanctuary in Him. Like the Man in Winged chair said, literature should be enjoyed, not studied. With that, I’ll finish the review. God bless.