Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Books – Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson

Now I don’t tend to read happy books. This may sound like an odd statement, and yet it’s too often true. I enjoy heart-wrenching books, books that tear your soul a little bit, and so sometimes I end up reading nothing but sad books for weeks on end. There’s occasionally a little burst of Dickensian or Austenite happiness, but I for the most part I read dark books, grim books, books that are liable to make you cry on the train to work. Reading Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, I remembered the beauty of happy books, of books that only make you want to cry with joy.

Published in 1938, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day tells the story of Miss Pettigrew, a middle-aged impoverished nanny. In search of a new position, she ends up knocking on the door of the young and beautiful Miss LaFosse, and is suddenly drawn into a new and different world. For just one day, Miss Pettigrew’s steps into Miss LaFosse’s Bohemian and dramatic life. She is astounded and excited, and astounds those around her. It’s like if a (less perfect) Mary Poppins met and got caught up with Evelyn Waugh’s Bright Young Things and decided to just go with it. It is beautiful.

There are many things I loved about this book. The fact it takes place over the course of just one day, the engaging easy writing style, the hilarity of some of its situations… Most of all though, I think I love the pleasure Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day takes in life. The novel is so thoroughly enjoyable. It’s not simply that the book is funny or happy – it’s more that it explores so brilliantly the joys of being alive. This is a book that takes pleasure in small and large moments, in the enjoyment of dressing up, drinking tea or cocktails, meeting new people, spending time with new friends, that lavishes in the pace and drama and joys of life. Miss Pettigrew, unhappy, struggling for work, with not enough money for breakfast, is suddenly reminded of why life can be and is beautiful. It is the kind of book that makes you smile on every page. It is a sheer delight to read.

The dialogue is fantastic, and the exploration of character throughout the book is done very well. Miss Pettigrew herself is complex, believable, sympathetic, and her eagerness to embrace this new world she finds herself in is one of my favourite things about her. Miss Pettigrew’s ability to fix the messy situations Miss LaFosse and Miss Dubarry get into, and the manner in which she takes these incredible twenty-four hours in her stride is simply beautiful. We feel her previous loneliness, her lack of self-confidence, but we also feel her desire to live. Likewise, Miss LaFosse and Miss Dubarry are such enjoyable characters, so lovingly crafted and so beautifully explored. I love that we get a sense of their backstories, their priorities, their conflicting feelings. I loved Joe, I loved Michael, and I hated and believed in Nick. There was not a character in this book that did not move me to a smile at some point. I love too that it’s a novel about female friendship, about the bonds between women. Despite their very different ages, backgrounds and way of life, Miss Pettigrew and Miss LaFosse develop a really touching and lovely friendship, one that will remain, I think, a literary favourite of mine.

There are probably a dozen cynical ways you could try and read this book, and if it was a different book you might succeed in those readings. You could read it as the story of moral downfall, or loss of identity – as the tale of a woman who, having been herself all her life, meets and is led astray by a set of young reckless bohemian people, who attempt to turn her into a new person, to flatten her old self. You might read it as the story of a woman who has worked hard all her life, depended on her own intelligence and her skills, and comes instead to value her appearance and her ability to lie. And yet, when you read Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, you simply cannot read it like that. It is too beautiful, too joyful a book. It is written with such love and pleasure that any problematic aspects of the plot seem swept away.

Besides, Miss Pettigrew doesn’t entirely become a Bright Young Thing. She keeps her own character, emphasises her age and maturity as a sign of her difference to the others. Miss Pettigrew isn’t made into a new person; instead she becomes who she was inside all along, growing into the sides of her character shut down by poverty and a conservative upbringing. Miss LaFosse and Miss DuBarry may teach her how to be a little vain, but they also teach her self-confidence, how to relax, how to actually enjoy life. And in return, Miss Pettigrew teaches Miss LaFosse as well.

In this way it’s also a book that combats the prejudices of the 1920s and 30s, that challenges the preconceptions regarding the immorality of the Bright Young Things. Watson shows them to be not immoral but simply uncertain of their feelings and unwilling to obey the normal social codes. Yes, Miss LaFosse is stringing along rather a lot of men, but Watson describes Miss LaFosse with such affection and awe, and Miss LaFosse is so kind to Miss Pettigrew, that you never judge her. Like Miss Pettigrew, you can’t help but love her.

All in all, this is an incredible and incredibly enjoyable read, one of my favourites for a while. It explores the beauty and possibilities of life in this twenty-four hours of excitement. It broadens Miss Pettigrew’s horizons, and it broadens ours. It is genuinely one of the most enjoyable books I have ever read.

Greatest strength: The utter enjoyment and happiness I think this book will give to anyone who picks it up.

Greatest weakness: None. As the book this is, it is perfect.

Let’s finish on a quote: All these years she had never had the wicked thrill of powdering her nose. Others had experienced that joy. Never she. And all because she lacked courage.


Next time: The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss



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