Miss Pettigrew is the literary equivalent of a screwball comedy, and it’s easy to see why Persephone Books chose to pluck it from obscurity. Unemployed and unaccomplished governess Guinevere Pettigrew reports to what she believes is an interview for another dull position, only to be thrust into the glittering high society world of actress Delysia LaFosse. Miss Pettigrew quickly becomes an ally to Miss LaFosse, and an asset to her circle of friends, because of her quick wits and straight-forward style.
The book takes place over a one-day period, and we watch the dowdy, downtrodden Miss Pettigrew blossom with every small triumph. She can hardly believe her luck, and dreads the end of the wonderful day, when she believes all her fun must come to an end:
For years she had lived in other people’s houses, and had never been an inmate in the sense of belonging. And now, in a few short hours, she was blissfully and serenely at home. She was accepted. They talked to her. And how they talked. She had never heard the like before. Their ridiculous inconsequence. Every sentence was like a heady cocktail. The whole flavor of the remarks gave her a wicked feeling of sophistication. And the way she kept her end up. No one would ever dream that she was new to it. “I never believed,” thought Miss Pettigrew with pride, “that I had it in me.” (1:54:58, Audiobook).
You can’t help but root for Miss Pettigrew to embrace this new lifestyle on a permanent basis!
I imagine this was a rather racy book when it was first published in 1938, what with Miss LaFosse maintaining three love affairs at one time – I suppose that’s what makes it feel so “modern,” overall. However, it also contains some shocking cultural signs of its times, including ethnic slurs aimed at Italians and Jews, that are decidedly out of step in 2011. The character of Miss Pettigrew – the spinster who’s sure life has passed her by, only to find she may have one last chance at happiness – is truly timeless.
Frances McDormand, who played Miss Pettigrew in the 2008 movie (I haven’t seen it, but would really like to), reads this book beautifully. You can practically watch prim Miss Pettigrew’s hair come down through her narration. The men are gruff, but not overdone. The women’s voices are all very unique, and capture their personalities perfectly. This was really a perfect match between book and reader – McDormand’s comic timing enhances the book tremendously. I highly recommend it for those who love literary fiction, humor, and fiction about women. And if you’re thinking of trying an audiobook for the first time, I would definitely suggest this one – it will give you an idea of how pleasant the experience of listening to a book can be. This is one of only four Persephones available as audiobooks, and I certainly hope they will do more.
This book counts for a Life Stage in the What's in a Name 4 Challenge. Thanks to Beth Fish Reads for hosting. I'll be posting a link to this review on Audiobook Jukebox – if you’re looking for audiobook reviews, that’s the best place to start!