Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

by Helen Simonson
Random House     2010
358 pages     Literary Fiction

Major Pettigrew is a very proper British man in a constant state of irritation over something or other that doesn't meet his standards.  One reviewer catalogues his irritations: "We see him annoyed, dyspeptic, displeased, disapproving, disappointed, dismayed, horrified, outraged, angry, appalled, exasperated, resentful, wincing, and flinching!" When we meet him, he has just learned that his brother Bertie has died, and shock and grief have taken over his attitude.

Then the doorbell rings, and he finds Mrs. Ali, the village shopkeeper, on his doorstep, and he is struck by love at first sight. Well, it isn't really first sight, because he often buys tea at her shop, but through the fog of his grief, he sees her really for the first time. The Pakistani woman (who, by the way has never been to Pakistan) has come to collect the payment for the newspaper delivery, and when he invites Mrs. Ali in, he finds that she is intelligent and a reader of Kipling and Keats—his favorite authors. The two become friends and persist in a very decorous relationship, despite the prejudices of the local busybodies and her upright, conservative Pakistani relatives. 

The first third of the book establishes our understanding of Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali and gives us a clear-eyed view of the small British village where tradition and busybodiness rule, but change creeps into every corner. Although Mrs. Ali and her deceased husband have been in the community for several years, they are relegated to a class below that of the traditional residents, who actually believe that they live in a "utopia of multicultural understanding." We also meet Roger, Major Pettigrew's thoroughly modern and very crass son, a constant source of annoyance to the Major. In the Major's eyes, Roger can do nothing right, and when Roger says that he and his American girlfriend, Sandy, are going to rent a weekend cottage in the village, Major Pettigrew is beside himself.

The second third of the book develops the major subplots, a retrieval of a valuable shotgun from his dead brother's wife, the yearly out-of-control golf club party, and the arrival of a nephew to run Mrs. Ali's store, which makes her feel superfluous. In the third section, all plot lines are resolved and Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali find that love can conquer all, amidst middle age and local prejudice.

Simonson is a master of subtle humor, and she has the curmudgeonly Major Pettigrew's character down pat. The humor sometimes is laugh-out-loud funny, and I found myself frequently chortling. For example, shortly after meeting the American girlfriend, Sandy, Major Pettigrew meets a land developer Frank Ferguson, who has arrived from New Jersey to work on a luxury condominium development in Major Pettigrew's back yard. The Major muses: "Two Americans in as many weeks was, he reflected, approaching a nasty epidemic."

My absolute favorite paragraph concerns the local Lord's niece, Gertrude, who the Lord is having trouble marrying off because she is "stubbornly plain." Otherwise, the Lord might try to marry her off to the American, Ferguson.  He says, "Her mother was such a great beauty, you know. But she's happiest in the stables shoveling manure. In my day that would have sufficed, but these days, men expect their wives to be as dazzling as their mistresses." To which the Major responds, "That's shocking. How on earth will they tell them apart."

There is much to love about Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. Major Pettigrew reminded me of my Uncle Merrill, who was very proper and always irritated about something. I also related well to the romance between the Major and Mrs. Ali. As a person who was given a second chance at love, I know full well that when you fall in love in middle age, you take the person with peculiarities and habits intact. 

This is my book club choice for August. Some readers are pairing it with A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. I do want to read this book, but I think I am done with old men for the time being.

Helen Simonson has a new book out that has received a lot of attention. The Summer Before the War was released in March of 2016. It also appears that the movie rights for Major Pettigrew's Last Stand have been purchased, and we may be able to have a delightful evening with the Major and Mrs. Ali.

The review in the Washington Post.
Helen Simonson's website.

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