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Although Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was written way back in 1938, it is a novel that has not dated at all. It made me laugh, it has a modern, risqué feel, and every single character is totally unique and completely believable.
Re-working the Cinderella, rags to riches story, Miss Pettigrew is a faded, middle-aged, down at heel spinster who really feels that her life is over. Employed for most of her life as a governess; one of the few occupations for genteel ladies in the 1930s, she not only hates her role, but is also very bad at it. Her last chance for employment comes in the form of an interview at the house of Miss LaFosse, a glamorous young actress, but from the very moment that Miss Pettigrew opens the door and sees her new employer, her life is changed forever.
The chapters are used to divide Miss Pettigrew's day - from Chapter 1 (9.15am-11.11am) to chapter 16 (3.47am - ?), the chapter titles let you know that every minute is packed with novelty and adventure. Miss LaFosse is a beautiful, charming young woman who finds most men totally irresistible. Seemingly unaware of the difference in age and status, she takes Miss Pettigrew into her close circle, bestowing clothes, alcohol, and endless excitement on her new friend, in return for some sage advice regarding her love life. Miss Pettigrew decides to put aside her morals and her traditional upbringing for just one day, and just have some fun for once in her life. What will happen to Miss Pettigrew once her magical day is over? Can she return to ordinary life after participating in the glamour and excitement of the bohemian world of the young socialite?
The main strength of this book is its freshness and humour. Miss Pettigrew is depicted with such skill that the reader instantly loves her and understands her. She tries to be shocked at meeting young women who sleep with men both for pleasure and to get ahead in life, but really she finds it all terribly thrilling. Throwing down strong cocktails with wild abandon, having supper at glamorous nightclubs in the early hours, holding her own with actors and theatre luvvies, Miss Pettigrew is determined to live life to the full. Even if it kills her, she means to have fun for the first time.
Every character in this book is brilliantly described, and you either love or hate them instantly. Because we feel that we know Miss Pettigrew so well, we laugh with her when she makes a mistake, worry with her when it all seems to be going wrong, and are happy that she has discovered freedom for the first time. The book has none of the stuffy, censored attitude to sexuality that is sometimes found in other contemporary novels, and the dialogue makes you laugh out loud at times.
The words that are most often used to describe this book are, "enchanting, charming ... a delight" - and this is the overwhelming feeling that you are left with at the end. Contemporary black and white illustrations give the whole book the feel of an old-fashioned children's adventure story, much like Enid Blyton, and add both to the charm and the humour. The whole story is a lovely light-hearted bit of fun; a feel-good book that will leave you smiling for a long time.
Although Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was a great success when it was first published, it quickly fell into obscurity and remained unknown for many decades until it was re-published by Persephone Press in 2000. It was made into a film in 2008 and, as is often the case, the book is a great deal more entertaining than the film. Much of the reader's engagement with Miss Pettigrew comes from an intimate knowledge of her secret thoughts and the turmoil going on beneath her prim exterior - and this just cannot be portrayed as well on film.
Published by Persephone Press, 2000
233pages. ISBN 9781906462024