Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

I’m sorry I did not take the advice of my fellow bloggers AT ONCE and dive into this charming, funny novel by Winifred Watson. It is sweet without being too sickly, an escapist fairytale with a good dose of humour and wisecracks to keep it grounded. It has the feel and style of those 1930s Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers comedies which I used to watch after coming home from school in the afternoon, before I sat down to do my homework. It was – for once – not relegated to the underground storage room of the library, but up proud and yellow on the ‘mood boosting books’ shelf. And never a truer word was spoken!

It is a fairy-tale, a Cinderella story of a middle-aged, downtrodden governess who is sent by mistake to the apartment of a glamorous nightclub singer, Delysia LaFosse, rather than a household full of unruly children. Before she has a chance to clear up the misunderstanding, she becomes involved in Delysia’s complicated love life and, with her level-headed, prim attitude and warm-hearted if slightly bossy style of questioning, she soon gains Delysia’s trust and gratitude. She gets swept up in the hedonistic lifestyle of her employer and over the next 24 hours experiences the most intoxicating period of her life. But once those giddy hours are over, she is very much afraid she will have to go back to her drab, near-unbearable life.

There is just enough backbone to Guinevere Pettigrew (that first name says it all), and just enough careless charm and genuine warmth to Delysia and her friends to make this story seem almost feasible, while the witty, self-deprecating observations keep us one step removed from fantasy land.  One could dismiss this as ‘romantic tosh’, but it is far more subversive than that. The lifestyle described is a little too decadent and Miss Pettigrew’s conclusion almost too forward for the time period she was living in:

I find it much pleasanter not to be a lady. I have been one all my life. And what have I to show for it? Nothing. I have ceased to be one.

The original illustrations by Mary Thomson are equally humorous and reminded me very much of the illustrations for Ballet Shoes (although those were drawn by Ruth Gervis). Just one note of caution: there are one or two offensive remarks about Jews and ‘dagos’ in there, reflecting the attitudes of the time, but not excessively so, it doesn’t sour the rest of the story.

As I said above, this book has been reviewed extensively by book bloggers I admire, such as Jacqui, Kate Vane, Simon Savidge , Emma, Max and Resh Susan. I haven’t seen the film but Frances McDormand as Miss Pettigrew strikes me as an inspired choice.

Escapist Reading Mini Reviews – and One That’s Not

I’m never going to catch up on all of my reviewing, so here is a brave and brief snapshot of some recent reading. All of the below are quite engrossing and make for good escapist literature (entertaining but not ‘light and cosy’ reading). Except the last one, as you’ll see.

magpieAnthony Horowitz: Magpie Murders

Horowitz is amazingly prolific (he cites Charles Dickens as an influence, so it’s not surprising), but in this book he gives us a bit of a bargain: two mysteries for the price of one. We start out with a classic Golden Age-type mystery written by recently deceased author Alan Conway but set in sleepy 1950s English villages, featuring his much-loved detective Atticus Pund. Any similarities to a certain Belgian detective with a moustache and hyperactive grey cells are entirely deliberate and Horowitz is clearly having enormous fun playing around with the tropes of the genre (and also showing us the weaknesses of Conway’s writing). However, just as Pund is about to assemble all the suspects and tell them who the murderer is, the manuscript ends and Conway’s editor Susan Ryeland has to find the rest of the story. And of course uncovers much more in the course of things, because it appears that this last manuscript contains many secret codes and messages and point to a real-life murderer. Much mocking of the publishing world and literary egos ensues.

For sheer unadulterated fun, great imagination and verve of storytelling, few can match Horowitz. He’s a great favourite with my boys, of course, but I’ve also enjoyed his versatility as a scriptwriter (Foyle’s War is a particular favourite). I’ve not read his Sherlock Holmes series yet, but I know he can echo and then subvert existing crime fiction styles and themes: James Bond in Alex Rider, Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett in The Diamond Brothers, and now Agatha Christie.

schollAnja Reich-Osang: The Scholl Case (transl. Imogen Taylor)

For anyone familiar with German history, the name Scholl evokes the brother and sister Scholl who dared to confront Nazi ideology back in the 1930s and were executed for their efforts. This book has nothing to do with them, but it’s what made me request it from Netgalley. Long live misunderstandings and serendipity!

What it does instead is present the real-life case of the 2011 murder of a 67-year-old woman in Ludwigsfelde, a small town just outside Berlin. The victim was Brigitte Scholl, wife of former mayor Heinrich Scholl, regarded as one of the most successful local politicians of East Germany after the reunification. At first, there were rumours that Brigitte was raped and killed by a serial killer, but a few weeks later her husband was arrested, pronounced guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. To this day, he pleads not guilty and German journalist Anja Reich-Osang examines the evidence in this factual recount of events.

There is no miscarriage of justice here, no spectacular revelations, just a chronological examination of two egocentric main characters and a thorough analysis of a long and difficult marriage. Despite the rather dry style and the often conflicting statements from friends and relatives, the events themselves are sensational enough to make this a compelling read. It’s also impossible not to see the sudden rush to a free market economy as a contributing factor in this domestic tragedy.

essexSarah Perry: The Essex Serpent

I’ve been keen to read this one ever since it came out and I heard so many reviewers raving about it. I’m not all that keen on historical fiction nowadays, but I was sucked into the story and atmosphere right from the beginning. There is something so beguiling about settling down with a proper, old-fashioned tale of wonder, mystery and subverting of clichés about Victorian life. There are also some great characters to sink your teeth into, each one of them interesting in its own right, none of them two-dimensional, even if they only have the briefest of  appearances. I didn’t personally warm too much to Cora and Will, the traumatised widow and the questioning vicar, although I appreciated the complex relationship between them, a marriage of true minds rather than lust. However, I was intrigued by Cora’s son, Will’s wife and the surgeon Luke Garrett. The atmosphere of menace, the sense of doom and waiting for the curse of the serpent to strike the village is so well conveyed.

It felt like a rich medieval tapestry to me (very much in keeping with the beautiful cover): flamboyant, easy on the eye (readable), full of poetry and grace, but not quite providing enough insulation for the bare stone walls. The ending felt as if the author had run out of ideas, rushed and yet repetitive. So, a wonderful premise and world-building in the first half of the book, but a bit of a drag and a disappointment in the last few chapters.

publiclibraryAli Smith: Public Library and Other Stories

Not really a collection of stories (although it does contain some fiction), more of a love ode to the power of reading and of public libraries. Certainly something with which all book lovers will concur, and she talks with authors and librarians about what reading means to them and why libraries are important. So it does have the feel of a specially commissioned work. Yet the stories are wacky, dream-like, written in an off-kilter tone which will surprise you, interspersed with personal anecdotes. There is the story of a man who can simply not understand his ex-wife’s love of books, until he too falls under the spell of Katherine Mansfield. The life story of an obscure Scottish poet Olive Fraser. What happened to the ashes of DH Lawrence. The woman who starts growing a tree out of her chest. Uneven, odd, but a great book to dip in and out of, and allow oneself to be surprised – much like in a library.

suspiciousLaura Kasischke: Suspicious River

This was the book I was reading the night I was following the results of the American election and I wouldn’t recommend it as the best escapist fiction. In fact, it shows depressed, hopeless small-town America (a town called Suspicious River) in all its grey drabness, male sexual predatory behaviour and women’s collusion to it in grimly plausible detail. At any other time, perhaps, I would have appreciated the disturbing poetic style (which contrasts so much with the bleak storyline), but on this occasion it went over my head. Admittedly, the poetic descriptions and metaphors did try a bit too hard on occasion, but it’s worth remembering that this was the debut novel by a confirmed poet.

Leila is a young married woman, working as a motel receptionist and dabbling in prostitution with the male clients checking in. Flashbacks to her childhood, her glamorous mother carrying on with her father’s brother behind his back, her mother’s sudden death and all the neglect which followed, explain to a certain extent Leila’s strange apathy and seeking out of painful experiences. A very troubling book, because of its subject matter and the cold way in which Leila seems to depersonalise her experiences and almost invite bad things into her life. So save this one for when you have a very strong stomach, or when you have got over the pain of the American election results.

Still, I enjoy Kasischke’s poetry and was really impressed by her more recent novel Mind of Winter, so I will continue to seek out her work. I will also be attending a poetry masterclass with her this coming weekend, so wish me luck!