Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

This novel is Persephone Books' best selling item and reviews are bountiful on the Internet, along with reviews about the film that was released in 2008.  I won't repeat the plot, as I'm sure most readers are aware of it, but I will touch upon my impressions of it.  I also hope to post a short review about the film soon and to briefly compare the two.

I found the book on the whole to be charming, diverting and fun although there were doubts about its frivolity along the way.  I don't think that I am over-the-moon about the book (as I expected to be after reading a few reviews) but I did enjoy it.  I liked Miss Pettigrew's character and loved it when she found secret reserves of courage within herself and took charge of a volatile situation.  She is a downtrodden woman who lacks experience in love and the "finer things in life" but she is self-reliant and independent, even if she struggles to pay her way in the world.  Her experience of life may be limited but it is solid and useful and underpinned by her intelligence and integrity. 

The funniest scenes in the book are right in the beginning when she mimics people from her past in order to get the better of an adversary.  Her newfound friend, Miss LaFosse, is her opposite.  She is frivolous and completely devoted to leading a pleasurable life at the expense of others (she relies on men to buy her things and keep her in a luxurious apartment).  A few characters within the book rely upon Miss LaFosse's judgement and intelligence but I found no evidence of such astuteness in her actions.  I'm afraid that to me, she came across as empty-headed and lacking in self-worth as she was easily led astray by men and their influence.   Perhaps I am being prudish, but near the beginning of the book I felt my interest wane as it was revealed that she had a couple of lovers on the go and was tempted to try cocaine.  I persevered and things got better... she did display a kind and giving nature but I felt that this was tinged with her lack of loyalty towards her lover(s) and her failure to be an independent women.  It may be a mark of the times that women were dependent on men and marriage in order to be financially secure, but I found it ironic that the sexually liberated Miss LaFosse was the one who was entirely dependent upon the generosity of men and that the conservative and sexually repressed Miss Pettigrew was the one who (out of necessity) relied only upon herself for her daily bread and butter.

The book is perhaps a peep into the social mores of the time in the late thirties (which makes references to promiscuity and drugs even more shocking to my mind - what did readers of the time make of that?) and as such is interesting from that point of view.  Although set in London, it had a bit of an American flavour to it with its slang and Chicago-style nightclubs.  But it is ultimately a Cinderella story and has a happy ending for our heroine, Miss Pettigrew, which I found the most thrilling bit of all.

I adored the vivid illustrations by Mary Thomson, which add to the richness and gaiety of the book, and help to bring the various characters to life.  One of my favourite characters is the indomitable Miss Dubarry who is confident, successful and happy to help other women in bettering themselves.  Although she too initially relied upon a man in order to make her way in the world, she took the initiative to learn about matters of business and ends up owning her own company.  It is thanks to her that Miss Pettigrew is given a glimpse into the life of the chic and graceful sirens when she is transformed into a beautiful swan by Miss Dubarry's skilful hands.  Miss Dubarry is also quick to assure our Miss Pettigrew that beauty is not always based upon substance and that any woman can improve upon nature... something that a lot of women still practice today.  The book is therefore peppered with dark and light moments and little moral tales, if you ponder upon it long enough, but it is ultimately a happy and comforting read, to be approached lightly and without over-analysis (which I am afraid I am sometimes guilty of!).

This is my second Persephone book and I possess both a copy in the classic grey cover and the colourful Classics edition.  I was fortunate enough to find them each in a charity shop over the course of a few months.  The end papers in the grey edition are graceful and warm and suit the book perfectly.  Persephone books are truly a tactile pleasure as they feel so solid and comfortable, yet light and smooth between your hands... a perfect reflection of the story within this particular book.



Lulu said...

I enjoyed Miss Pettigrew, although, like you, I didn't think it the masterpiece so many reviewers claim it to be. It is certainly a diverting Sunday afternoon read though, and I have to say I love the illustrations.
I'll be interested to see what you have to say about the film. It's certainly beautiful - I desperately want Miss LaFosse's apartment! - but the character's weren't often depicted as I'd understood them. Miss Dubarry in particular is, in the film, utterly unlikeable, for example.

Rochester Reader said...

Oooh, what a pity about Miss Dubarry! I shall sit down to watch the film soon.