There are 365 of them in a year, and an untold number in a life – days. And as many days as there are, that’s how many cliches there are about them. They’re long, but the years are fast. Saturday and Sunday go too quickly; Monday through Friday drag. And so on and so forth. In the space of a single day, there is plenty of room for all sorts of action – even an ordinary, not particularly eventful, day. I love to read quotidian novels – novels that take place over the course of one day – I love to sink into them and be swept along on the tide of hours as the characters move through their rhythms, living from moment to moment and reminiscing on past experiences and encounters. Here are three favorites:
Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf, is perhaps the definitive quotidian novel. The novel opens in the morning; Clarissa Dalloway is out shopping and planning for a party to take place later that day. As the day unfolds, Mrs. Dalloway reflects on life, marriage, motherhood, and the impending transition from middle to old age. I’d read several Virginia Woolf novels before attempting Mrs. Dalloway, but never felt like I really “got” them. But as I was swept along with Clarissa Dalloway, Woolf finally started to make sense to me, and I found myself absolutely loving the book.
Mollie Panter-Downes’ classic of post-war England, One Fine Day, is as beautifully written, and as captivating, as Mrs. Dalloway. In One Fine Day, the Second World War has just recently ended, and Laura and Stephen Marshall are looking ahead to an uncertain future. As Clarissa Dalloway tremulously confronts the senior years, Laura is similarly tentative in looking ahead to the new post-war world (and there are some poignant meditations on individual aging in One Fine Day, too).
I saved the most fun for last: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson, is pure delight from the first page to the last. When the novel opens, the titular Miss Pettigrew is dispatched from an employment agency to a job interview. An indifferent nanny, Miss Pettigrew is ground down by life and circumstances – but all of that changes, at least for the day, when Miss Pettigrew crosses paths with her potential employer, nightclub singer Delysia LaFosse. Miss LaFosse is a sparkling confection of a person, and Miss Pettigrew finds herself tumbling from scrape to scrape as Miss LaFosse careens through her day – occasionally stopping to pinch herself and reflect that this, indeed, is “Life.” I loved every moment of Miss Pettigrew’s day.
What are your favorite quotidian novels?