The Awakening of Miss Prim, the debut novel from Spanish journalist Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera has become an international bestseller – which surprises me, but only slightly. Critics are saying it is beautifully written, distinctive and inspiring. The Huffington Post describes it as “an ode to the simple joys of life.”
The book merits such praise, but Fenollera’s work is much more profound. With a generous serving of tea and cake, The Awakening of Miss Prim subverts the secular worldview and challenges contemporary orthodoxy regarding marriage, the economy, the place of religion, what constitutes progress, and the definition of feminism. Fenollera’s tender treatment charms the reader into wanting the main character (Miss Prim) to give up her stubborn, secular ways and give in to the dazzling mystery of the Christian faith.
A Brief Summary
Here’s the gist of the storyline. A well-educated woman (Prudencia Prim) moves to the village of San Ireneo de Arnois and takes a job as the private librarian for an eccentric man (think, C. S. Lewis), a master of languages who carefully tends to the education of multiple children. He is also a practicing Catholic with a deep appreciation for gifts inherited from Western civilization. As Miss Prim gets to know her boss, the children, and the people who make their homes in this village, she finds herself drawn to different belief system and new way of life.
A good premise. A Spanish setting. Good characters. Fenollera delivers these and more.
A Quiet Rebellion Against Modernity
But the big takeaway from this book is its quiet rebellion, the way it charms the reader while challenging modernity and many of its problems. It’s as if someone dreamed up what Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” for cultural engagement would look like in Spain, extended from church to a whole community, and then wrote a novel about it.
In a world exhausted by the hectic pace of life in capitalist societies or the ideology that squelches innovation and individuality in socialist societies, Fenollera’s family-based model of economics (which resembles Distributism) has great appeal. She defends Christianity’s social teaching by painting a portrait rather than just mounting an argument, but even then, her portrait does include debate and logic and argumentation.
Literature lovers will love the book’s fireside debates over the world’s greatest works. (Should Little Women be on that list, or not?!) From the Greek epics, to the greatest fairy tales, Awakening overflows with references Western classics – never just to analyze and study them, but to let them shape and form us as human beings. Shakespeare, Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Chesterton, Austen, Swift are all mentioned, as are theologians like Anselm, Augustine, Jerome, and Chrysostom.
Beautiful, Good, and True
The beauty of this book is its portrait of Christianity as a life-giving vision of the world. Awakening won’t let the reader reduce the convictions of the religious townspeople to merely a private, individualized assent to doctrine. Because the convictions at the heart of this world are good, true, and beautiful, the surrounding community (including the skeptics and agnostics) are drawn to its light.
There is plenty of logic and reasoning in Miss Prim, but it’s mystery that draws the reader in. Following the threads and the hints and clues make you wonder how a little village like this can exist, until you arrive at the fountain – the source of inspiration for Western culture.
Some will categorize the story as a romance. Perhaps. But 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.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I think you will, too.