MAJOR PETTIGREW’S LAST STAND
By Helen Simonson
2011 Random House, New York (2010)
Don’t let the title Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand deter you from reading this delightful first novel by Helen Simonson. When it was first recommended to me I reluctantly agreed to read it and was delightfully surprised. It is one of the most endearing, and thought-provoking novels I have read in a long time.
Retired Major Ernest Pettigrew is a rather “stuffy,” opinionated English sexagenarian who has led a quiet life filled with honor, duty and good cups of tea. He is thoroughly delightful as you follow him through the trials and travails of dealing with a grown-up love affair, village prejudice, a self-centered son with a snobbish American fiancé and a grasping sister-in-law and her equally greedy daughter.
The story begins with Major Pettigrew (he detests being called Ernest) in a bright pink floral robe that belonged to his late wife. He is mourning the recent death of his brother, Bernie. He strikes up a friendship with a local widowed shopkeeper, Mrs. Ali (we don’t learn her first name until later in the story), who visits to console him. Their common bond over the loss of their spouses and their love of Kipling kindles the burgeoning friendship, as they continue to call it. But Mrs. Ali is Pakistani and her very British neighbors, as well as Major Pettigrew’s family, are aghast at this relationship.
There are several subplots that add to the interest, but the developing love between the main characters, both of whom thought they were too old for romance, is the central theme of the novel.
The disturbing prejudice of the villagers and families is handled very delicately and discreetly by Ms. Simonson and it never “hits you in the face,” although it often makes one want to shake them and give them a good talking to.
During the development of the novel, the major begins to realize that the village of Edgecombe St. Mary might not be the place he thought it had always been. The vindictiveness of some of the villagers toward the Pakistani shopkeeper is very disturbing, and very much a problem we face in the world today.
When I finished reading Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, I couldn’t help but hope Helen Simonson will soon write another novel, perhaps following up on the life of major and Mrs. Pettigrew (yes, they get married over many protests). Maybe we’ll see a movie develop from this delightful novel, but it would be quite difficult to find a suitable major. See what you think.
~ Peggy Kiefer