Friday, 5 September 2008

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

This wonderful romp of a novel was reprinted by Persephone Books having been lost to readers for many, many years. It has become Persephone's bestseller and consequently has morphed into a beautiful piece of cinema. I have taken the time to enjoy them both and I can conclude that it has been time well spent.

The Shop...
Persephone Books ( are a publisher and bookshop with a clear mission and brand. I really admire what Nicola Beauman has done with this business - as a businesswoman she has found a distinct niche within the publishing market that promotes itself as a lifestyle choice along with what Beauman herself describes as a kind of 'soft' feminism. The 78 books that currently form the Persephone catalogue are written by mainly female writers whose books struggled to maintain long-term notoriety and which all without exception are regarded to be extremely well written. On visiting the original bookshop on Lambs Conduit Street, London and browsing for about 15 minutes in the front part (this is the shop and the rest is Persephone Headquarters) the member of staff working there was constantly answering the telephone and taking orders, business seemed to be booming... Especially in the wake of Miss Pettigrew's foray into cinema. It was an extremely pleasant retail experience - I love good service in a shop, not intrusive, yet knowledgeable and friendly - full marks were had here.

Onto the Novel itself...
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is a Cinderella story with a twist: Cinderella is not young and beautiful, but rather a middle aged, frumpy and down-at-heel governess who cons her way into the lovely Delysia LaFosse's apartment and her life. Miss Pettigrew is painted and polished to hob nob with the social elite, and meets Joe, an underwear magnate who sees through to her very soul. It's a lovely inoffensive novel which makes you laugh and tugs at the heartstrings. This version also has some lovely illustrations and an excellent preface, setting the book in context and offering with lightness of touch, some insight into the author's world.

The Film...
It is interesting how liberal the scriptwriters have been with the plot and characters of the novel, infact much of the film bears little resemblance to the original storyline. However it manages to escape criticism because of this, due to the beauty of the film. The settings and costumes are magnificent. The contrast between the stark streets of London, Delysia's decadent apartment ( I want to live there!) and the racy Scarlet Peacock is really nicely managed. The script focuses very much on the two lead female characters and rather less on the pursuit of the men in Delysia's life and the two lead actresses (Frances McDormand and Amy Adams) put in some good performances as you see their relationship developing.

Miss Pettigrew has managed to fill three rainy afternoons for me - a visit to the shop, reading the novel, and watching the film. A satisfying way to have spent my time.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Wicked by Gregory Maguire

I purchased this almost three years ago in a bookshop browsing session in Barnes & Noble on New York's Fifth Avenue. As I recall I spent about two hours browsing there, had a drink and a slice of cake and then wandered down to Central Park. It was a warm day at the end of October and I was spending a couple of days alone in New York following some time in Florida with a Disney employed friend. Wicked the musical had just opened on Broadway and had a tremendous buzz about it. Try as I might, I couldn't get a single return without paying touts prices and when I saw that familiar image on a book, I thought it was the next best thing. I also bought The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell and The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks. At that snapshot point in time, my possibly somewhat naive impression was that these three books seemed to sum up the mainstream cultural zeitgeist. I read The Notebook on the flight home, and The Tipping Point over the next couple of weeks. Wicked had stayed by my bed for the last three years gathering dust.

Following the successful transfer of the musical version to the West End, I booked tickets and aimed to read the novel before I got to see the performance. I was glad I had done so, as there are many differences between the two.

Wicked is a prequel and in the latter stages parallel novel to L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I found the novel hard to get into, with the opening lacking some sense of pace and possibly due to the lack of a protagonist at the very beginning, indeed the novel takes us back to Elphaba's birth and the reader is not made to empathise with any of the other characters, so until we encounter adult Elphie, it leave us a little bereft. The premise is a good one and, like all good fairytales, it is dark and almost gothic in places. The character of Elphaba is particularly well conveyed and the intimacy in her adult relationship with Fiyero is very real. It is very definitely an adults book , a great read once the pace picks up, and it's intertextuality with the Wizard of Oz is endlessly satisfying.

The set prior to performance

The musical version strays somewhat from the plot lines set out by Maguire, although it is clear that in order to become family entertainment, it would have to be a little different - the scene in the club - need I continue? The focus of the story is on the development of the characters of Glinda, Elphaba and their friendship and less on the ethical struggle between good, bad and the grey areas in between.The staging of this production is no doubt incredibly expensive, but it is a triumph in theatrical design and spectacle. There is some stunning orchestration and the climax to the first Act 'Defying Gravity' is a perfect piece of theatre, which left me choked, and made the Act Two an anti-climax to an extent. Having read the novel I felt cheated by the 'Disney-fied' ending to the musical, but really that can be my only true complaint.

I'm not sure that I'll read more Maguire - I feel satisfied with this one, but it does come recommended.