Title: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand
Author: Helen Simonson
Genre: Literary Fiction
Publisher: Random House US/ Bloomsbury UK
Publication date: March 2010 (US) / November 2010 (UK)
Paperback: 400 pages
Major Ernest Pettigrew (Ret’d) is not interested in the frivolity of the modern world. Since his wife Nancy’s death, he has tried to avoid the constant bother of nosy village women, his grasping, ambitious son, and the ever spreading suburbanization of the English countryside, preferring to lead a quiet life upholding the values that people have lived by for generations -respectability, duty, and a properly brewed cup of tea (very much not served in a polystyrene cup with teabag left in). But when his brother’s death sparks an unexpected friendship with Mrs. Ali, the widowed village shopkeeper of Pakistani descent, the Major is drawn out of his regimented world and forced to confront the realities of life in the twenty-first century. Drawn together by a shared love of Literature and the loss of their respective spouses, the Major and Mrs. Ali soon find their friendship on the cusp of blossoming into something more. But although the Major was actually born in Lahore, and Mrs. Ali was born in Cambridge, village society insists on embracing him as the quintessential local and her as a permanent foreigner. The Major has always taken special pride in the village, but how will the chaotic recent events affect his relationship with the place he calls home? Written with sharp perception and a delightfully dry sense of humour, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a heart warming love story with a cast of unforgettable characters that questions how much one should sacrifice personal happiness for the obligations of family and tradition.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Bought (Kindle Edition)
Why did I read this book: Gemma Malley, in her Smugglivus’ guest post talked about the book and I liked the sound of it so I went and bought it.
Major Pettigrew, retired, widower, one of the inhabitants of the small village of Edgecombe St. Mary, England, just lost his brother and in his grieving process strikes up a friendship with a widowed shop owner, Mrs Ali, of Pakistani descent. Friendship grows into something more as the two find they have things in common including a love for reading. Between trying to deal with his brother’s will and the infamous family firearm, the troubles of his estranged son Roger and the village life in all of its glory and tribulations, the 68 year old Major realises he still has some passion left in him.
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a lovely book, funny and poignant (and I am pleased to report, a happy one too) featuring a love story between two middle aged characters and their internal struggle to not only accept that they are falling in love again but also all the external implications of their affair. The former affects the Major in the way that, for a man who, for all intents and purposes is extremely loyal and honourable but whose emotional life is contained (but not entirely suppressed) in the name of good manners, trying to woo a lady at his age is an almost unbearable thought. The extent of this containment is plain even in the interactions between him and his best friend Alec:
Alec asked him how he was feeling.”Life goes on, you know,” he said to Alec’s back. Alec concentrated on his swing. ” I have good days and bad.” Alec hit a hard drive very straight and almost to the green.”I’m glad to hear you’re doing better,” said Alec. “Nasty business, funerals.” “Thank you,” said the Major, stepping up to set his own ball on the tee. “And how are you? The daughter’s baby, baby Angelica, is doing much better. They saved the leg.” There was a pause as the Major lined up his own shot and hit a slightly crooked drive, short and to the edge of the fairway. “Nasty business, hospitals,” said the Major. “Yes, thank you,” said Alec. They retrieved their bags and set off down the grassy incline.
Mrs Ali on the other hand seems to have a zest for life and prodigious love for her family, especially her nephew both of which can’t be easily contained and her part of the conflict comes from trying to conform to the religious and cultural expectations from her late husband’s fundamentalist family.
Those expectations are also present in the manner which some of the younger secondary characters frown upon older ones coming together but also from the way that both the English villagers and the Pakistani characters disapprove of the Major and Mrs Ali’s relationship. To navigate these murky waters of racism and prejudice is not an easy task but one that the two character set out to overcome with aplomb once they put their hearts to it.
Whereas the microcosm aspect of the novel – the relationship between these two characters and the ones between them and their relatives and friends – worked extremely well, I am not too sure about the macrocosms. It felt to me that the author tried, perhaps too hard, to show an idea of a “quintessential” English village that is maybe outdated for a 2010 novel, with all of its pettiness, suppressed emotions and racism (disguised as tolerance) which felt more like exploring an stereotypical image of the English. All of the youngsters and the rich people in the novel are self-obsessed egotistical, money grabbers (including Roger, the Major’s son); most people in the village are racists in disguise and OMG what is an AMERICAN doing here! There is one event in particular that pushed all of my buttons when the villagers threw their annual ball celebrating English Colonialism in India I felt positively horrified and wondered if in this day and age could people still be so clueless? Similarly, must the only family of Pakistanis in the story be a fundamentalist one (and the over the top ending when a crazed character – one of the Fundamentalist family, of course – does something EVIL in the name of religion, does not help at all)?
In all fairness, all of it is well written and even well-executed (aside the ending) and I especially liked Mrs Ali’s nephew, and his struggle with the pressures of his religious beliefs against the pressures of daily life in a secular society and I am sure that all of this unfortunately exist (the money grabbers, the suppressed emotional middle aged British, the racists, the rich and the clueless, the religious fundamentalists); my problem is with the sheer concentration of it all in ONE novel, in ONE village and I keenly felt that the portrayal of Edgecombe St. Mary and its inhabitants is an unsympathetic one.
(It should be noted that perhaps such a strong personal opinion comes from being an immigrant in England who has never experienced any of the above. However, I am also aware that I am 1) white; 2) from a similar cultural background and 3) live in a city as opposed to a small village which means I definitely speak from a place of privilege.)
It is testament of the strength of this author’s writing, how well the two main characters are drawn and how amazingly sweet their relationship is, that in spite of the observations above I ended up truly loving this book.
Notable Quotes/ Parts: This scene between the Major and Mrs Ali was lovely:
“Mrs Ali almost stammered and a blush crept into her cheekbones. The Major thought she looked like a young girl. He wished he were still a boy, with a boy’s impetuous nature. A boy could be forgiven a clumsy attempt to launch a kiss but not, he feared, a man of thinning hair and faded vigour. “I could not be happier”, said the Major. Being also stuck with the problem of how to handle the two drooping roses in his hand, he held them out. “Is one of those for Grace? I could put it in a vase for her.” He opened his mouth to say that she looked extremely beautiful and deserved an armful of roses, but the words were lost in committee somewhere, shuffled aside by the parts of his head that worked full-time on avoiding ridicule.”
Rating: 7 – Very Good
Reading Next: Cryer’s Cross by Lisa McMann