02 July 2011
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.
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.
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.