Main image
22nd August
2009
written by Steph
Like an episode 24... only with more makeup

Like an episode 24... only with more makeup

First off, this marks my 44th book read this year.  An odd number to flag, I realize, but one with personal significance for me.  You see, last year I read a grand total of 44 books.  So this read was momentous because it signaled that anything I read from here on out will be an “improvement” over last year… I didn’t really set myself any hard goals number-wise for 2009 as I don’t really see the point in that (it seems to detract from the real reason for reading, in my mind), but I did think somewhere that I could probably hit 50 books.  And now, with just over 4 months to go, I’m sure I will! (Wouldn’t it be sad if I somehow didn’t manage to read 6 books in the next 17 weeks or so?) Now, one thing I’ve been lamenting privately to Tony about is the fact that this year has had some really good (even great) reads crop up for me, but I haven’t encountered any 5-star books.  That is probably more important than reading lots of books, and I’ve been feeling a bit bereft that the magical alchemy that produces a perfect book for me has been so elusive.  Every book I pick up, I do so with the fiercest hope that it will somehow shake my very foundations of who I am as a reader.  I very much hoped that Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day would be that book. Alas, it was not meant to be!  I wound up liking this book a good deal in the end, but it did fall a tad shy of my expectations.  I was hoping to get something like I Capture the Castle, but wound up getting something more along the lines of a Barbara Pym novel… that is, a diverting read, but one injected with an element of insipidity that I didn’t exactly care for.  I know that many reviewers consider this a Cinderella tale of the 1930s, so I should have expected something a bit light and frothy, but that’s not really what bothered me about the book.  I think the problem was that for the better portion of the novel, rather than empathizing with poor, humdrum Miss Pettigrew, I merely found her frustratingly meek and obtuse.  I think I can deal with sweet ingénues as heroines, but there is a fine line between naïveté and dim-wittedness, and in my mind, Miss Pettigrew early on had too much of the latter.  I was exasperated by her inability to simply speak up for herself, and there is one point where two women are speaking about something they would have her do, and it is SO OBVIOUS what they want Miss Pettigrew to do, and yet she is clueless as to their intentions, and later having successfully (but unknowingly) achieved her task, she is still in the dark as to what she has accomplished or how.  I just found this really unacceptable for a women over the age of like, 14.  I can only assume that all of the drinking these ladies do throughout the course of a single day severely stunted Miss Pettigrew’s powers of observation to near vegetative levels. Ok, but I’m getting ahead of myself.  The basic premise here is that Miss Pettigrew is a downtrodden, bedraggled, down-on-her-luck middle-aged spinster who is sent to a certain residence one morning which has requested a governess.  Only, when Miss Pettigrew gets to the appointed address at the correct time, she finds herself face to face with Miss LaFosse, who drags her into a world of decadence, romance, and intrigue beyond anything she could ever have imagined.  Throughout the course of one short day, Miss Pettigrew will see, feel, and experience more than she has in her previous 40 years.  Rather than merely existing, she will finally learn how to live! I don’t know.  Sometimes I think I am a cold-hearted harpy to have found Miss Pettigrew so daft and annoying early on, kind of like kicking a puppy for being dumb – it doesn’t mean to be stupid!  But she was so bland and defeated… just like an overcooked noodle.  I just found her passivity and self-doubt so bothersome… especially since throughout the course of the days she keeps vacillating so wildly between highest highs and crippling self-censure.  I just wanted to shake her and tell her to get over it already!  Plus there were all these moments where she would suddenly know exactly how to behave, how to be charismatic and charming, how to channel some element of her personality (or someone else’s) that it kind of creeped me out, because it was almost like she had dissociative identity disorder or possibly schizophrenia.  I just found her behavior exceedingly bizarre at times.  Plus, it was so weird how she so quickly felt compelled to dictate Miss LaFosse’s behavior and tell her how to live her life (as if Miss Pettigrew would know… and where did she get all this stunning insight into people?)… I won’t lie, I kept feeling there were lesbian undertones there.  Probably completely unintentional, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some English PhD candidate has written a thesis along similar lines! Anyway, I spent the first half of the novel bemused by Miss Pettigrew, wondering why I should care for a character who refuses to grab onto anything with her own two hands and has such wild mood swings, and little did I know that she was growing on me.  Because for all my eyerolling early on, and the sense that this was all too campy and disingenuous to be believed, there comes a point in the novel where suddenly my heart strings, they were tugged!  I think even though I never really loved Miss Pettigrew as a character, I got caught up in the whirlwind of the day and came to appreciate the notion that it is never too late to start one’s life.  I was discouraged that most of the characters felt ill-drawn, like Watson didn’t really take any of them seriously, and for a while I wasn’t sure how much of the novel itself I should take seriously either… but once I gave myself over to the fact it was a harmless romp, not much more than chick lit of the 1930s, I was able to better appreciate what the novel was rather than what I had hoped it would or thought it should be.  Plus, there is this scene later in the novel where Miss Pettigrew is sharing a taxi with someone (the aforementioned heart-tugging moment) and it was the first time where I felt her actions were heartbreakingly honest and there was real emotion underlying her words and deed, and it made all the difference.  Finally she lays something on the line, and because of that Miss Pettigrew finally came alive for me there, and it made all the difference.  I didn’t just care what happened to her, I actually started to root for her. So this one was a slow boil for me, in that I went from not caring for it very much, to feeling it really was rather sweet and diverting.  It's also probably worth noting that I read this entire thing in just one day, so it certainly is sufficiently engaging to allow for a speedy read.  And I think I would like to look at more titles from the Persephone line-up, because I think there are likely some real gems there for me to discover. If only Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day had had more moments like the one in the taxi cab, I would have loved it, I think.  But for now, love continues to evade me.  Perhaps Miss Pettigrew and I have more in common than I first thought! Rating: 4 out of 5

16 Comments

  1. 08/22/2009

    Consider how Miss Pettigrew’s character to be credulously out-of-touch, and that you have given it 4 stars, the book does redeem itself after all. Maybe Watson has purposefully depicts her to be so clueless so that her transformation would be more accentuated. I actually saw the movie a year ago without the knowledge that it was based on the novel until, of course, I saw the opening credit.

  2. 08/22/2009

    I love how your heart strings were tugged, despite everything! I think this is to be expected in a Persephone, the non-perfection, in that, I wonder why they lapsed into obscurity unlike other books, classics which are still very much read. Being someone who mostly clicks with classics and prize-winners, I was a little reluctant to jump into a Persephone. But then I guess, that is the reason why their titles are so distinct. Certain qualities that make them worthwhile reading, despite being somehow flawed. Gems, nevertheless. I’m really excited as this will be my first Persephone, too, on Monday!!!! Hope I like it!!!!

  3. Eva
    08/22/2009

    Too bad you didn’t love the book, but have you seen the movie? I love it to death. 😀

  4. 08/23/2009

    I haven’t read the book at hand so no comment there, but I understand why you didn’t have a yearly “books read” goal. Some books, like 2666 or Gone with the Wind, are a bit larger than books like Winnie-the-Pooh. How does one compare in yearly counts?!

  5. 08/23/2009

    @ Matt: Yes, I did feel the book redeemed itself, although I found the beginning so frustrating that no amount of “redemption” was going to make this into a 5-star read. Perhaps you are right that Watson’s characterizations were purposeful, but I just personally felt she really didn’t hit her stride until late in the novel… I think she could have still had a rather dramatic transformation without making Miss Pettigrew so uninspiring early on.
     
    @ Claire: You know, I had never stopped to consider that maybe there is good reason why some of these Persephone titles have fallen out of favour, but I think you’re exactly right in supposing that they probably have moments of brilliance but are perhaps not overall masterpieces. That being said, I did find this a diverting read, if not as complex or nuanced as one might hope, and I think you’ll enjoy it. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts!
     
    @ Eva: I haven’t seen the movie, but I plan to. I could see myself enjoying it very much. I didn’t initially enjoy my reading of Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm, but then I watched the movie, which was appropriately light-hearted and came to like the book more!
     
    @ Rebecca: Yes, I think it’s fine to have certain goals to strive for (read more international fiction, read more female authors, etc.,), but I see certain people with these astronomical reading goals, and I always wonder whether we should be so fixated on quantity! I mean, if you read so many books in a year, can you really enjoy them when you’re hardly spending any time with them? I wonder how people that rip through 500 page books in a few hours can really connect with them… To each her own, I suppose, but for me it’s not so much reading a lot as it is about reading enough to fulfill me and enrich my daily life!

  6. Great review! Did you know it is Persephone reading week? Go and take a look: http://paperbackreader2.blogspot.com/2009/08/persephone-take-off.html

    I’m sure others will be interested in this review – and you can win a book or two!

  7. 08/24/2009

    @ Jackie: From your blog (and Claire’s reminders!) I was indeed made aware that this is Persephone reading week! Alas, I don’t have any more titles to read… but at least I got this one, and if this is done next year, I’ll be sure to participate properly!

  8. Great review, Steph! It’s really comprehensive and I love how you examined why you didn’t like Miss Pettigrew to begin with and then began rooting for her.

  9. 08/24/2009

    Thanks, Claire! Glad you liked it, and thanks for commenting. This was definitely one of those novels that gathers steam as it goes.

  10. 08/24/2009

    Awesome review! I haven’t read this book, and am a little sad to hear that it was a slow starter. I did see the movie though, and I think that actress that played Miss Pettigrew seemed to embody passivity. I don’t know how faithful the movie adaptation is, but much of what you said in the review could be transferred to the book, so I guess it might be close. I look forward to one day reading a Persephone book, their catalog looks to be filled with some real gems.

  11. 08/24/2009

    @ zibilee: We’re getting the movie tomorrow through Netflix, so I’ll be able to compare and contrast it to the book. In some ways I hope the movie is more spirited/lively, but your comment makes me think it will probably be very faithful. I will report back!

  12. 08/26/2009

    I’m sorry to hear the book didn’t quite live up to your expectations, but anyway, I so enjoyed reading your review. I love that you gave me a good idea of what to expect when I get to it. And I’m glad Miss Pettigrew redeemed herself in the end!

  13. 08/27/2009

    @ Nymeth: Expectations are funny things! This book wasn’t bad by any means, the beginning was just so different in tone than how I thought it would be, and I had a hard time adjusting to what the book actually was. I hadn’t actually read much about this one going into it, but had still heard about it, so I had built a very specific (but inaccurate!) idea of it in my mind… Maybe if I had snooped around and read more book reviews I would have been better prepared!
    Also, thanks for commenting!

  14. […] wait until I had actually read the original source material (I’m very compulsive about this).  Now that I have, I moved Miss Pettigrew up my […]

  15. Kay
    08/31/2009

    At least it was still a good read even though it wasn’t what you were hoping for. I enjoyed your review a lot though, I already have this one in my pile(s) of books, hopefully I can get to it soon enough!

  16. 08/31/2009

    @ Kay: Yup, I’m glad I ultimately came to like this one rather than the reverse (liking at the beginning and then not!). I think it’s a pretty hard book to hate in the end!

Leave a Reply