Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark
Read: 24 November to 26 November 2012
3 / 5 stars

Score another point for the It's Not You, It's Me rating. In books as in life, I just can't get past certain character flaws.

Miss Jean Brodie is the kind of teacher my high-school self would have gone positively apeshit over. Younger Me would have eaten up her determination to shirk the stifling curriculum to impart the wisdom and knowledge she felt formed a remarkable mind, hoisting her onto a pedestal made of hero-worship for having the temerity to rock the establishment's boat. That cynical bitch Older Me, however, was suspicious of her motives and couldn't shake the feeling that this tale was like an all-girl Dead Poet's Society with a less purely intentioned teacher and less naively worshipful students (minus the saccharine charm of departing the story before the awestruck pupils grew up to be disillusioned adults). My other problem with this one was my lingering hostility toward the type of woman Miss Jean Brodie seems to be. (Really? You're in your prime? I can't wait for you to hammer home that conversational nugget, like, 87 more times and talk all about yourself some more.) And possibly the distracting scrawlings of the book's previous owner, which were clearly jotted-down lecture highlights littered with words' less common spellings, like "desparite" and "bicariously."

I know I'm missing something in not better appreciating what is a much-lauded novella by being so turned off by just a small facet of the main character's personality because there was quite a bit more going on than one might expect from a deceptively slim tome. The titular lady certainly is a complex character who seemed to be preserving her own fading youth in those select girls in whom she saw protege potential (I want so badly to make a "Brodie set : Jean Brodie's prime :: horcruxes : Lord Voldemort's soul" comparison but I feel like that's just setting myself up for a rabbit hole of recreational thesising). Brodie is determined to tear through life and distill her experiences into vivid life-beyond-cold-academia building blocks for her chosen pets. I was fascinated by her ability to dedicate herself completely to whatever passion tickled her fancy at whatever point -- teaching; art; strategically placing a favored student, as a stand-in for herself, in the best position to carry on an affair with a much older married man -- without it ringing with the falsity of a passing, half-hearted fad. There was something desperate in her determination to suck the marrow out of life, though -- like it was missing the unselfconscious joie de vivre of a person truly enjoying existence with reckless abandon. She was the cat parading around her mouthful of feathers, pushing societal boundaries for the sake of daring others to take notice of her untamed ways and marvel at her free spirit.

The non-linear narrative neatly packed 10 pounds of enlightening exposition into a five-pound bag; I'm generally a fan of chronological meanderings, so that was a definite plus. The Brodie set was a gaggle of foils, both among themselves and for their teacher: Their innocence and adolescence played so perfectly against the surrogate mother figure whose own purity was abandoned long ago and whose peak has already begun its decline. And I positively adored Sandy, the most prominently portrayed of Brodie's elite, even though I knew she was the obvious choice.

Definitely worth the read, especially for a book I grabbed on the sole basis of its length as the end of the world 2012 loomed ever closer with my year's reading goal still unmet. I just wish I hadn't chanced upon it more than a decade too late, as I feel like this is one of those books that's a primo gauge for measuring how far one's come over the years.

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