Sunday, February 28, 2016
Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson
Originally published 1938
Published by Persephone 2008
Narrated by Frances McDormand
A governess is sent by an employment afency to the wrong address, where she encounters a glamourous night-club singer, Miss LaFosse.
Seriously? That's the summary? Okay, first of all, why are there spelling errors in it? Also, yes, it's an accurate summary, technically that is what happens in the book. But there's something of a spoiler in it, which is just wrong to begin with, and the story is so much more than that.
Miss Pettigrew is actually quite a bad governess. She's bolloxed her "career" so badly that her landlady has threatened to evict her if she doesn't get a job the day she is sent to Miss LaFosse's door. She is dowdy spinster with a moral compass so far up her butt (sorry, Mom!) she hasn't had any fun her entire life. She is self-aware enough to know that she is a screwup and knows that she will be in the bread line if she doesn't get the job with Miss LaFosse.
One of my all-time favorite books is Stella Gibson's Cold Comfort Farm which is, apparently, a parody of exactly this kind of book. So it would stand to reason, then, that I might think this book was a bit of silliness, right?
Almost eighty years after it was first published, I found it to be utterly charming. The circumstances of life may be different these days but Watson's characters could very well exist in today's world. Would it be believable that a woman might reach the age of forty and never have been kissed? Unlikely but not impossible. It is possible that a woman might find herself very much in Miss Pettigrew's situation. Is it likely that a person would walk into a woman's apartment and get completely swept up into that woman's life without that woman ever wondering why the person was even there? Doubtful these days. In rare lulls, I found it hard to believe that Miss LaFoss wouldn't think to ask Miss Pettigrew why she happened to come by that day.
But...it's a story and one that I was more than willing to suspend disbelief in order to enjoy. Because it was a delight to watch Miss Pettigrew bloom and find hidden reserves she didn't know she had, to see her lose her prejudices. The more I grew to care about her, though, the more the title of the book kept coming back to haunt me. After all, Miss Pettigrew is only going to get to live for a day. I didn't want her to have to go back to her life before Miss LaFoss.
Frances McDormand is a marvelous narrator, easily able to create different voices for the many characters in the novel. I'm certain she was chosen because she played Miss Pettigrew in the film adaptation but I hope it is not the last book she narrates. And now, to find the movie to watch