Last night, I broke three personal rules.
Stayed up too late.
Reading in bed.
A romance novel, to be precise.
For someone who generally prefers non-fiction, it takes an exceptional story to upset my routine. As the “Books I’ve Read” sidebar shows, I’m much more prone to pick up biographies or memoirs than made-up stories. And unless it’s Jane Austen or Emily Brontë, don’t expect me to swoon over made-up people falling in love.
But the real shocker is not only that I took a chance on a made-up story of made-up people falling in love. I liked it.
With that as a preface, it should come as no surprise that this isn’t your typical romance novel. (Spoiler alert: they don’t end up happily ever after). Rather, as one might guess from its title, the main character is transformed through a thoughtful, tender journey as she interacts with people and ideas that challenge her thinking. It’s a bit like Sophie’s World meets The Jane Austen Rules (though honestly, can anyone hold a candle to Mr. Darcy?)
Miss Prudencia Prim, we learn, is an intelligent, accomplished young woman who becomes the personal librarian for an eccentric bachelor living in an utopian European village. While it’s obvious to everyone around them there’s a possibility of becoming more than “just friends”, she resists any inclination toward romance, fighting to retain her independence. We watch her spar with her counterpart, who always seems to have the right word at the right moment to counter her defenses with civility, respect, and a dose of humor. I can appreciate a quick-witted fellow who stands his ground while making the most of every opportunity to court and compliment:
Miss Prim looked at the Man in the Wing Chair through the growing darkness and wondered bitterly why, even at such gloomy moments, a conversation with him was so much more interesting than any she had with other people; why the most obstinate and odious of his species was also the most stimulating to talk to.
“I’m cold. Would you mind taking me home now?”
“Mind? I’m always happy to take you home, Prudencia.”
Speaking of cold, the story of Miss Prim is a perfect novel as we crawl out of winter, on account of its cozy setting. Much like the Danish concept of hygge, it lives up to its cover description with a backdrop of ‘fireside debates’ and ‘lovely company.’ Though winter was fairly mild this year (I’ve shoveled the driveway just twice), the book also provided a desirable escape from what’s become a toss-up between the lesser of two evils: election coverage or corona updates. I needed to disappear into a tale that would take my mind off such events—but not into some trashy beach novel that would have me ruing several hours I’d just wasted.
Another reason I appreciated the story of Miss Prim was how easily I could relate to her. She describes feeling “burdened by nostalgia, by a desire to stop time, to recapture things that have been lost.” She speaks of possessing “sensibility from another century,” a longing for beauty from a bygone era.
I knew just what she was talking about, courtesy of a local storefront featuring European apparel. While most of the inventory is beyond my budget, curiosity drew me in. And, like the haberdashery of Miss Prim’s village, it bespoke another time and place.
The proprietor, a gentle seventy-four-year-old, reminded me of a similar character in her social circle. There’s a great enough age gap and respectability between them that she’s not wary of advances, and he’s not making any.
But that didn’t stop this clothier from studying me carefully, a fact I learned after my second visit, when I shared my admiration for fine clothing and classic styles. “I know,” he said. “I watched the way you browsed.”
And so, even if I couldn’t afford the Italian trousers or Swedish outerwear, I appreciated the owner’s intimate knowledge of every item in his collection, down to price, origin, and composition. While I convinced myself that spending my tax return on a leather handbag would not have been a wise investment of $250, I did walk away with a comfortably-discounted silver bracelet that lends an air of timeless elegance to my work attire.
Aside from mention of her jade green kimono, we don’t Miss Prim fussing with fashion; rather, she’s more likely to be entangled in a philosophical debate with her dashing, yet contrarian, employer. And that’s where things get interesting.
As another reviewer writes:
The beauty of this book is its portrait of Christianity as a life-giving vision of the world. …There is plenty of logic and reasoning in Miss Prim, but it’s mystery that draws the reader in…It’s more like a detective story in which the protagonist is falling in love, not just with a man, but with the Author who has written the story of our world.
It’s certainly not publicized as a Christian novel – nor should it be – but one can’t read it and not encounter the question of what it means to have faith. It’s a story that helps us see what’s possible when we look beyond ourselves and consider that we were made for Someone greater. It’s a novel built on hope, and not just that the guy gets the girl. As Prudencia is reminded, “Life is much simpler and easier to bear if you believe it doesn’t end in a coffin underground.”
It may not be a real story, but as the author herself relates, “it speaks of profoundly real things.”
In light of recent world events, it’s as though we’ve suddenly remembered how fragile life is and how much we have in common. Many are afraid of just how easily one human can transmit disease to another, and another, and another.
But transmission can be a good thing, too. It’s how I became acquainted with the story in the first place, having learned of it through a podcast, which helped me locate a copy through the library. Nobody likes to share germs, but few can criticize the success of word-of-mouth advertising and book lending. I even passed it off to a friend – guilt-free, thanks to technology – who downloaded the original Spanish version to her Kindle.
Soon after, I found myself breaking one more rule.
I hoped there might be a sequel.
This is a lovely review of a book that I’ve never read, but now I think I would like to! Thank you for sharing it! I’m glad you broke your rules.