Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

This is one of those books where I saw the movie first, so comparisons were inevitable. It’s funny, but for the life of me I couldn’t remember what Delysia LaFosse looked like in the movie when I started reading the book, but Miss Pettigrew will forever look like Frances McDormand to me.

First Published: 1938

Miss Pettigrew, a middle-aged gentlewoman who works as a governess-for-hire, is down on her luck and reaching the end of her tether. Almost broke and desperate for a job she really has nothing to lose and so when she is sent to the wrong house for a job interview and discovers her prospective employer going through a crises, she steps in and saves the day.

This so endears her to the young woman that she is soon called on to solve more problems and gets whirled ever more deeply into the social circle around Miss LaFosse, who, it turns out, is an actress and night-club singer with serious man trouble.

Miss Pettigrew, over the course of a day and a night, undergoes a transformation from a dowdy governess to a bold, assertive woman (at least on behalf of others), breaking many of the rules she has always lived by and thoroughly enjoying herself, perhaps for the first time in her life.

I suppose Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day would nowadays be classified as chick-lit, but back in the day it was probably labelled as women’s fiction. It was well-nigh forgotten when Persephone Books reissued it some years ago and then a movie was made and the book took off and now everyone seems to be reading it.

This is, at heart, a Cinderella story, with the unlikely duo of glamorous Miss LaFosse and her friend Miss Dubarry playing fairy godmothers to Miss Pettigrew and allowing her to blossom. It is also, in a way, a coming-of-age story. Although Miss P. is forty, she still blindly follows the rules of conduct drummed into her as a child, and discovers to her delighted surprise when she starts following her own rules that the world doesn’t end just because she’s had an alcoholic drink (or two) or told a lie (or several). She has, in effect, grown up.

The story trips lightly along, full of sparkling dialogue, witticisms, funny incidents and wonderful characters, major and minor. I had intended to read a couple of chapters on Saturday, before turning my mind to cooking a complicated meal for myself, but I got swept along by the story and ended up reading it straight through without stopping (fortunately I then got asked to dine with family, so it all turned out all right).

While the movie had a more decisively happy ending than the book does, I actually prefer the book’s ending, because while it is a happy one it is also more realistic and gives the reader leeway to imagine the rest. I am glad this wonderful book got rescued from obscurity and reissued and I only wish there were more books out there that can sweep a reader so completely off her feet like this one does.

4+ stars, a definite keeper and reread.


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