Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Book Review - Nancy Mitford's Pigeon Pie

Pigeon Pie by Nancy Mitford
Published by: Vintage
Publication Date: 1940
Format: Paperback, 368 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Sophia Garfield has had this fixed and glamorous image of what the outbreak of war would be like. Needless to say she is very let down when it doesn't live up to any of her expectations. Her husband is busy with his mistress, who is now living under the same roof as Sophia, not that she really minds, seeing as her own lover is there as well. Sophia is more put out because she sent her dog to the country for safety and is missing the little brute. The war is looking as if it's going to be very dull. Where are the spies and the romantic secret agents? And she's not talking about her friends who are pretending to be secret agents, but the real kind. Sophia does her duty though and starts work at a First Aid Post, which holds more dull drudgery in spades. She thinks it all might be more interesting if the war were to actually start in earnest, but little does she know that she's about to wind up in the middle of a giant German conspiracy. Her godfather, Sir Ivor King, is about to help Britain launch a musical campaign to bring the Germans to their knees when he is apparently murdered. This is just the first event in a series of odd occurrences that might just help Sophia get the excitement she wanted out of the war.

Sometimes you're reading a book and you can see exactly what the author was trying to do. You know what their intent was. In fact, they are trying so hard it's almost a little painful to read. But in the end their efforts fall flatter then flat and it's not that the book is bad, it's just that it's almost a nonentity. You could take or leave the book and it wouldn't matter one whit. This is exactly how I felt reading Pigeon Pie. There was one instance when I was almost drawn in, when Sir Ivor King was murdered, but that moment of shock had no follow through. The book just went back to it's standard level of blah. This is the first of Nancy Mitford's books to leave no impression on me. On the whole I have enjoyed everything she has written, except Don't Tell Alfred, but there I felt Nancy was trying to be too much and too modern while cashing in on her previous successes with the Radlett family. I have been mulling over as to why I feel this way and I think I have stumbled on an answer. While the basic framework of working in a First Aid Post is drawn from Nancy's own experiences, the farcical spies are pure imagination and just don't work. I think Nancy is one of those writers who excel at writing what she knows. I mean, what's the basic advice to beginning writers: write what you know. Nancy is amazing at this. She turns her jaded eye on the society she was raised in and with witty quips writes books that are a delight to all. Throw in something out of her milieu, and, well, you get Pigeon Pie.

In fairness to Nancy, it's hard to make spying funny in a wartime situation. Even the masters of movie comedies, the Zucker Brothers and Jim Abrams, failed atrociously with Top Secret! Which, for whatever reason I still keep watching... ah, young Val Kilmer, I can't look away, old Val Kilmer, make it stop. On a side note, Jim Abrams was the speaker for my graduation from the UW-Madison, I mention it for no reason at all, other then it was kinda cool. Yet there is one other movie to which I kept comparing this book and thinking, yes, that is what Nancy was trying to do. That movie is The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming. While set during the Cold War not WWII, it's pure farce with Russians running around New England and the comedic geniuses of Jonathan Winters, Alan Arkin, and Carl Reiner. Apparently I'm not the only one who thought it was pure genius when I watched it as a little kid because looking it up now it was nominated for best picture at the Oscars. This movie has the "comedic chaos" that I think Nancy was aiming for with the Germans taking over the aid post and doing all sorts of dirty deeds under the eyes of the British Government. She just didn't get it. Her Germans pretending to be zealot Americans just made me want to put the book down, walk away, and watch some Russians invading New England.

Yet Nancy might, just might, have been able to overcome her lack of first hand experience with secret agents if she had written a single likable character. Yes, as a rule, she doesn't have the most likable characters. They are more caricatures to be laughed at and made fun of. Though, on the whole, they usually have some redeeming aspect that makes you like them, or at least one character you can side with. Not here. Every character was so unlikable I kind of wanted the Germans to succeed in destroying them. In Nancy's other books which are peopled with vapid, amoral characters, we can laugh at them and feel for them, but not love them. That's why Nancy usually has a balance by having someone like Fanny in The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, who is good and true and is the moral compass. We need someone like us looking in on this world where husbands and wives live under the same roof as a couple but with their lovers as well and cast them a gimlet eye; a conduit into the book where we can see Nancy is hopefully making fun of the society she's living in with lovers in the house, instead of it coming across as a fact that make all the characters unlikable. Couple this with in jokes Nancy shared with her sister Diana about golden buttery wigs that make me think of old episodes of Doctor Who for some reason and you can see why Vintage decided to lump this slim volume in with the far better Christmas Pudding, because otherwise no one but the true Mitford devotee would buy it.


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