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The Magnificent Spinster by May Sarton

January 9, 2017

The Magnificent Spinster is my second May Sarton novel, and it has lead me to purchase every book I can find by her.  I was introduced to Ms. Sarton by Thomas of The Readers when he recommended reading As We Are Now - a slim book that I think about all the time.  Thomas then noted on his blog that this book was one of his favorites and, as we share a mutual love of Barbara Pym (another other that focuses on the lives of spinsters), I knew that I could trust him.  I happened to be in Powell's in Portland, OR when I found a used copy of the original hardback. I always like to start the year with a book that fits into my comfort zone - a book that will kick the reading year off right. And this book did just that.  

 

I have always been fascinated by the idea of the "spinster". Women that did not have to get married to be satisfied with life - something that was radical in the world that for a long time thought that a woman's worth was really determined by the wife she was and the children she had. This idea, so sexist in nature, has been present in society for ages and I cannot say it had been completely eliminated even in 2017. So, I love novels that show these women as the strong examples of female independence that they are. I have found that books about these women tend to focus more on the emotions of life, and rely less on plot driven action. This novel is no different.  Jane Reid, our Magnificent Spinster, is a single woman who never chooses to get married and the book focuses on how she uses her inner goodness to help those around her. 

 

The story has another main character as well. Cam is writing the book as a dedication to her friend and mentor Jane - but from the outside looking in Cam could also be considered a spinster. She is a woman that never married, with focus on her career as a teacher as a scholar.  However, the book lets the reader know that Cam is a lesbian and she had a very loving and long lasting relationship with a women. The book was published in a time when Ms. Sarton could never come out and use the term "lesbian" but she is artful in showing in many different ways how Cam and Ruth's relationship holds just as much emotional weight as any other marriage in the novel.  One of the most moving scenes in the entire book focuses on how Jane helps Cam after the death of Ruth - something you learn about early in the novel. Ms. Sarton was a lesbian herself, and I feel she uses Cam as a vehicle to show that her own life had such worth outside the societal norms that she lived in herself. 

 

Jane was the second youngest of four children in a very wealthy family. She decides early that she is going to become a teacher at local private school after college, and this is where she first meets Cam and develops an almost godlike following. She has a way of making everyone she touches feels special, loved, and taken care of.  The book follows her through her years as a teacher, time in Germany where she sets up a school for others, and the end of her life as she and her house are a land of recovery for many of the people in her life.  In a book like this it is hard to really focus on plot because the real focus is on how one person can be just intrinsically good. This book has a lot of good feelings - I was moved throughout.

 

I also think that something has to be said for the format of the novel. The premise is that Cam has decided to write a fiction book about her friend Jane after she has passed. Because Jane has no direct family, Cam does not want the world to forget Jane or the good she did for the world and others.  There are times where Cam is not a character and the story is told in straightforward story format. And then, she also comes in as a character when she is directly involved with Jane and the novel almost feels like a memoir of a fictional person. I personally found this very clever.  When Cam speaks directly to the reader, May Sarton can be more direct in telling you how this woman or women like her affected those around them.

 

May Sarton is slowly but surely working her way into my favorite authors. I have really loved both books that I have read by her. I would recommend her to people who love Pym and even lovers of Stoner by John Williams.

 

Rating : 5 books

 

 

 

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