I’ve finished so few books lately, and have been so dissatisfied with the number of reviews I’ve been able to post, that I have turned to the small pile of books I finished months and months ago, but never quite got around to reviewing. So I’m looking back over the hazy mists of time, trying to remember not only what I thought about a book, but what on earth happened in it.
Lucky for me, Paul Gallico’s 1960 novel Mrs. Harris Goes to New York has a little synopsis right there in the title. The sequel to his charming novel Flowers For Mrs. Harris (published in America as Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris, and republished together recently by Bloomsbury, with its aspirate in place), Mrs. Harris Goes to New York does, indeed, see Mrs. Harris travel off to see the Empire State. This time, though, it’s not with a dress in mind, though – she and her friend Violet Butterfield (familiarly Vi) are off to reunite a mistreated adopted boy with his long-lost American father.
In case you haven’t encountered Mrs. Harris before, she is a no-nonsense, salt-of-the-earth charlady, who (in the first book) unexpectedly develops an all-abiding passion to own a Christian Dior dress like the one she has seen in the wardrobe of one of the women for whom she works. Mrs. Harris is a wonderful creation – speaking her mind, with its curious mixture of straight-talking and dewy-eyed romance. Romance for adventure, that is, not for menfolk – Mr. Harris is good and buried before the series begins.
I mentioned in the ‘strange things that happened in books I read this year’ section of my review of 2012 that I’d read one book where somebody went door-to-door searching for people called Mr. Black (that was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and one where somebody went door-to-door searching for people called Mr. Brown. That was Mrs. Harris Goes to New York – since she did not know exactly who might Henry Brown’s father, she needed to go and visit every Mr. Brown in New York…
Few native New Yorkers ever penetrated so deeply into their city as did Mrs. Harris, who ranged from the homes of the wealthy on the broad avenues neighbouring Central Park, where there was light and air and indefinable smell of the rich, to the crooked down-town streets and the slums of the Bowery and Lower East Side.
It’s a fun conceit for a novel – I wonder if Jonathan Saffron Foer was deliberately mimicking it? – and Mrs. Harris is an excellent character to use repeatedly in first-encounters – it shows how Cockney and brazen she can be, as well as the endlessly charming effect she has on everybody she meets.
Paul Gallico’s novels often hover on the edge of fairy-tale. The first one I read, which remains easily my favourite (and is on my 50 Books list over in the right-hand column) was Love of Seven Dolls, which is very much the darkest of his books that I’ve read – but was still very certainly mixed with fairy-tale. That was what saved it from being terrifyingly sinister. The two Mrs. Harris novels I’ve read are much more lighthearted, and Mrs. Harris herself is very much a fairy-tale creation. She enchants everyone she meets – and I mean that almost literally, in that she seems to be a fairy godmother, changing their lives for the better through Cockney wisdom and irrepressible optimism. And perhaps a little bit of magic.
There are quite a few other Paul Gallico novels on my shelves, waiting to be read – including the next two in this series, Mrs. Harris, MP and Mrs. Harris Goes To Moscow, which Bloomsbury also publish and kindly sent me. I’m also excited about reading The Foolish Immortals and The House That Wouldn’t Go Away. I’ll report back on all of these as and when I manage to read them – but, for now, for when you want to be a little charmed yourself, you could do a heck of a lot worse than spending an hour or two in the delightful company of London’s finest, Mrs. Harris.