Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson

>> Sunday, July 29, 2012

TITLE: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
AUTHOR: Helen Simonson

PAGES: 384
PUBLISHER: Random House

SETTING: Contemporary England
TYPE: Fiction

In the small village of Edgecombe St. Mary in the English countryside lives Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired), the unlikely hero of Helen Simonson’s wondrous debut. Wry, courtly, opinionated, and completely endearing, the Major leads a quiet life valuing the proper things that Englishmen have lived by for generations: honor, duty, decorum, and a properly brewed cup of tea.

Then his brother’s death sparks an unexpected friendship with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the Pakistani shopkeeper from the village. Drawn together by their shared love of literature and the loss of their spouses, the Major and Mrs. Ali soon find their friendship blossoming into something more.

But village society insists on embracing him as the quintessential local and regarding her as the permanent foreigner. Can their relationship survive the risks one takes when pursuing happiness in the face of culture and tradition?
This is a pretty good, accurate summary that I quoted above, so I'll leave it at that.

This was a deceptively meaty book. In some ways, it was what I call a "warm bath" book: the sort of book that's warm and comforting and immersive, and feels a bit like sinking into a warm bath. But it was also a book that examined some quite difficult and conflictive issues, like the nature of Englishness and xenophobia, traditionalism and progress and a very difficult relationship between a father and a son. Pettigrew does this in a subtle, gentle way, full of appreciation for the people who inhabit her book.

Major Pettigrew works so well as main character because he's a complicated man. Part of him is a snobbish, conservative old coot, but then, if that's all he was, his friendship with Mrs. Ali would never have arisen at all, much less changed into something else. He cares about what his neighbours think and doesn't want to be embarrassed, but he's quite acerbic when he thinks about his son, Roger's actions, which are more extreme in that respect. But at the same time he can be quite funny, as well as compasionate, as in his interactions with Mrs. Ali's young relatives.

Mrs. Ali is a bit more of a cypher, as we only see her through the Major's eyes here. She's quite the perfect woman, intelligent and dignified and beautiful, and she "gets" the Major like no one else, but that's basically it. Nothing we see helps us much to really understand her relationship with her family. However, I guess this means that we readers are then in the same position as the Major, with the same sort of hazy understanding of what's really going on.

And speaking of Mrs. Ali's family, I really liked their very nuanced portrayal. Things kind of go to hell a bit at the end, but in the rest of the book, I especially appreciated that Simonson actually has some Muslim characters who are not secular and modern, and yet are good people.

So I loved every minute as I was reading, right until the frankly strange ending. The cozy tone suddenly turns into high drama, with chases and lives imperiled. It didn't work very well.

Still, that was a minor part of the book, the rest was great.



Marg 29 July 2012 at 09:24  

I really enjoyed this book, until that odd little part at the end there. I look forward to seeing what this author comes up with next.

Rosario 30 July 2012 at 06:37  

Yeah, that was a bit of a shame. And same here, I'm definitely reading her next. No news about it, yet, though!

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