Monday, April 07, 2008

Agnes and Guinevere Live and Dream for a Day

Mary Doria Russell is one of the rare writers who has actually earned a place in my permanent book collection. When you work in a library, you tend to experience the whole world as your personal library, so it usually takes something special to join those books that never need returning.


Although I love Russell's writing, I tend to recommend her with caution. She'll break your heart, you see. You will fall in love with her characters, and they will become a part of you, and you will become as invested in their journey as if it were your own, and then, like humans, they will fail, or be injured, or lose their way, or their faith, particularly their faith, and you may find yourself devastated. It's possible, for example, that my Mother has forgiven me for recommending The Sparrow, Russell's riveting tale of a Jesuit mission to a newly discovered planet, but I'm not entirely certain. She is certainly cautious whenever I recommend new things to her now.


Thus I approached Russell's new book, Dreamers of the Day, gingerly; sidling up to it, trying to avoid direct eye contact. But alas, the tale of Agnes Shanklin, an Ohio schoolteacher on holiday who finds herself caught up in the whirlwind of 1920s Middle East politics was more than a match for my caution. Reader, I was quite delighted by her story.


Although Miss Shanklin is a quiet, unassuming, easily forgotten sort of person, Miss Shanklin's story takes place at the prophetic turn of a major century. Her entire family, mother, siblings, nieces and nephews, are wiped out by the Great Influenza Epidemic, making Miss Shanklin a modest heiress, but an orphan of the soul. On an impulse, Agnes decides that, accompanied by her dear sausage dog Rosie, she will visit the Middle East where her beloved sister had once done missionary work.


Upon arrival, Miss Shanklin has the interesting fortune of running in to a former acquaintance of her sister, one Theodore Lawrence, more commonly known as "of Arabia". And thus she finds herself swept into the periphery of the 1921 Cairo conference. While you are wondering why anyone might care about the 1921 Cairo conference, I can only point out that it was this august assemblage that, among other things, like establishing the future Israel, drew the boundaries and selected the leader of a theretofore completely imaginary country called "Iraq."


It's interesting how, when we add information like this to our mental tallying tools, our present suddenly become so much clearer. Why exactly was Great Britain the only major nation to happily join hands with us in our march into Iraq? Perhaps it had less to do with Tony Blair's supposed lapdog qualities and more to do with a nation's acknowledgement that, oh, goodness, yes, we were the ones who first drew that line around Kurds, Shias and Sunnis and dubbed it a nation. Whoops! Our bad!


There is something reminiscent of Forrest Gump in Agnes Shanklin's uncanny ability to find herself taking camel tours with Winston Churchill, but unlike Gump , Agnes is not a naif. Although sheltered, she is well educated and opinionated. She is uneasy at the thought of this group of European powerful dividing up the Middle East like pie, as if the Middle East were a blank slate, without several million inhabitants who, it's possible, might have interests beyond those of helping Europe become more powerful.


Russell is not only interested in the Middle East. Early in the book Agnes tells the story of a U.S. president who won his election on the promise of no foreign adventuring. Yet after taking office, the president's pacifism was transformed by the discovery of incendiary evidence of a threat to our nation. Though the evidence seemed suspicious even from the beginning, the president became the band leader of a fierce drumbeat to war. "The rationales warp and twist and shift," Agnes observes. "The closer war comes, the simpler and stupider the choices. Are you a warrior or a coward? Are you with us or against us?" The President was Woodrow Wilson and the war was World War I, a war that has since been transformed in our conscious to one of those good old fashioned morally dis-ambiguous wars, so different from the tedious morally challenging ones of today.


Miss Shanklin's observations aren't limited to war either. I was charmed by her description of her contemporaries, The Lost Generation, dealing with the generation they spawned, now ominously known as The Greatest Generation (EVER). "(T)hey fought two world wars and bore the brunt of the Depression. With their savings wiped out, many were forced in old age to move in with their grown children. Ancient flappers and decaying swells would shake their heads as their serious sons and respectable daughters raged at teenagers for dabbling in illicit drugs, thoughtless sex, "jungle" music, and lewd dancing."


"Why, we used to drink until everyone was falling down, peeing-on-the-carpet, puking-in-the-streets drunk!" the Lost would mutter, recalling the bootlegging, the jazz, and the parties..."How could we have raised such stiffs?"


I found Dreamers of the Day both challenging and strangely comforting. The challenge is facing mankind's insatiable appetite for war, made worse by our nature to quickly forget our own history, even as the ripples of history's repercussions define our future. The seeds of the next war are sown within the peace of the last. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand no more caused World War I than a race is caused by the starter pistol, an acquaintance tells Miss Shanklin. "[P]eople believe easily that battle is a sacrament...that without war's mystical blood payment society goes soft and rots from within."


But perhaps I'm the naif when I say I found this story strangely comforting. We find war, but somehow we find peace too. We've adventured, disastrously, in the Middle East for thousands of years, and yet it's still there and we're still here, and somehow, we've managed to not completely annihilate ourselves yet. Perhaps it's a stretch to call that good news, but I'd like to think as long as there are Agnes Shanklins in this world to keep us honest, we cannot lose ourselves completely.


Which brings us to Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a warm and wonderful comedy — based on a 1938 Winifred Watson novel — which feels as if it has been delivered to us from another era; a My Man Godfrey for the new millennium. Frances McDormand plays Guinevere Pettigrew, a governess in late 1930s London who has just been released from her third job in a row. Her old fashioned notions of laissez fair child rearing apparently don't go over well with the coddling parents of the day.


Summarily dismissed from Miss Holt's Employment Agency, a desperate Miss Pettigrew steals a referral card from Miss Holt's desk and thus finds herself on the doorstep of singer, aspiring actress and walking tornado of disaster, Delysia Lafosse. Although Miss Lafosse has ordered a "social secretary" ("I don't even know what a social secretary does, but that rabbity Charlotte Warren has one so I figured I should too!") it's rather immediately apparent that a governess might be far more appropriate.


Miss Pettigrew is immediately enlisted in saving Delysia from the complicated web of affections she's managed to weave for herself. On the one hand, there is Nick Colderelli, the nightclub owner who wants Delysia's pretty face on his stage and her lovely body in his bed. On the other, there is Phil Goldman, the barely post-adolescent son of the theater owner who is definitely interested in her lovely body, and might be interested in casting her pretty face in his father's new show, if he can be distracted from the rabbity Charlotte Warren. And, because this is a screwball comedy, there must in fact be a third hand; Michael the poor but noble piano player who cannot offer Delysia money or fame but only all of his love, until the end of his days.


How to describe Amy Adams as Delysia Lafosse? She is perfection; part Carole Lombard, part Marilyn Monroe, part Holly Golightly and all loveliness. Sexy, sweet, selfish and terrified, she's everything that Adams was not as Princess Giselle in Enchanted, and that's Disney's loss.


Swept into the orbit of Delysia and her friends, Miss Pettigrew encounters Joe Blumfield, played by the awesome Ciaran Hands, a lingerie magnate and erstwhile fiance of Delysia's friend Edythe. As the young beautiful people swirl and party like there is no tomorrow, Miss Pettigrew and Joe are the only ones in the room that realize how true that is. As a cocktail party is interrupted by the drone of a squadron of war planes overhead, the young beautiful people stand on the balcony and cheer, while Joe and Guinevere sit pale and quiet in the hall. "They don't remember the last time," says Miss Pettigrew. "No, they do not," says Joe.


There is more than the fear of hunger and unemployment driving Miss Pettigrew to help Delysia. "And you're the expert on love!" Delysia snaps when Miss Pettigrew tries to point out some of Michael's finer qualities. "No," says Miss Pettigrew, "I am the expert at living with the lack of love," a fate she would like to help Delysia avoid. Miss Pettigrew knows that one can be fooled into thinking one has infinite choices when in fact the world offers no such luxury. Life is short, and getting shorter by the day. Miss Pettigrew knows that few have ever looked back on their life and said "I'm so glad I threw away love when I had it in my hands."

2 comments:

Dorene said...

Read this entry last night and then happened upon this blog post today...serendipitous, I say. (Note the very last sentence...)

http://scalzi.com/whatever/?p=751

Lopez Kilpatrick said...

I am looking forward to the new books. I LOVED the Sparrow series.