The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax by Dorothy Gilman

Read February 2019
Recommended for people who like traveling in the 60s
★     ★    ★ 

You know what’s lovely about Mrs. Pollifax? She’s unabashedly enthusiastic about travel and about meeting people from other cultures. Published in 1966, it certainly speaks to simpler times, or perhaps different times. Definitely different times. Lots of Cold War spy drama, if I remember my James Bond movies correctly. Gilman’s elevator pitch was to take James Bond out of the picture, and put an adorable little white-haired grandmother in it. Haha! Isn’t that funny!? Remember–1966. That’s the premise.  We aren’t meta-navel-gazers yet, people; there’s very little post-mod nod-send-up here. Anyways. 

It opens with Mrs. Pollifax contemplating the recent occasion she contemplated suicide. That’s quite an opener. I think, back then, it must have been meant by the author as representing Mrs. P’s extreme emotion and not something played for laughs. But it was a bit disconcerting reading such exposition, and to then switch into ‘applying-to-be-a-spy” mode. Because, of course, way forward in the future here-and-now, we actually understand that suicide is a real and sadly common event.

At any rate, then it takes off rather nicely, semi-plausibly (1966, people, 1966), with a typical mistaken-identity thing: Mrs. P. is shown to a waiting room in the new CIA headquarters at the same time a legitimate applicant is expected. A simple job turns into a disaster–of course–but you just know that Mrs. P’s Can-Do-Spirit is going to get her through, along with her amazing ability to connect with others. No, no secret skills, beyond volunteering her time, being unsuspected of sneakiness (1966 here) and a giant purse. I’ll forebear mentioning exactly what happens, but the short version is that her trip to Mexico lands her in an Eastern European prison. The real benefit here is that it didn’t feel sappy, or saccharine in a way I associate with cozy mysteries. It felt like a rather determined, resourceful person making-do while spy stuff happened around her. I hate to damn it with faint praise, because I’m really not, but it’s kind of a Girl Scout book, in the best, pre-modern-sense of the word.

It wasn’t an amazing story, but for a day or two after–and this is the truly unexpected part–I actually felt kind of positive about the world. I mean, Mrs. P. survives because she really does approach each person with an open heart (to be Buddhist about it), and even when circumstances veer towards suspicion, gives them the benefit of the doubt. Or powers on, and gives them the opportunity to change. It’s charming, really. I think I felt my heart grow two sizes, at least for a little while.

I first read a few books in this series sometime in the mid-nineties. I remembered being mildly entertained, and when I was looking for a series for The Mom, this came to mind. Well, also because it is in large print, which is her preferred format these days. Anyways, I read it as well, out of mild curiosity and milder boredom.

The Mom liked it too, although she did refer to it as “that book with the old lady,” which I found very ironic. But I kept that to myself.


About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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