12.18.2010

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is, without a doubt, the most charming book that I've read all year. Thought-provoking without being pushy, softly complex without being overwhelming. Helen Simonson's delightful novel focuses on a quiet English country village and the complications that result when both small and large changes start to creep in. Edgecombe St. Mary is comprised of named cottages, a Lordly estate, a members-only club, and a reluctance to change how life has been lived for years... so it's a particularly interesting turn of events when one of the members of the community who would be least likely to endorse change winds up involved with a number of minor signs of progress that feel like enormous issues for everyone else.

Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired) is a widower and leads a fairly quiet life where the big event of his week might be a round of golf. While he was born in India (his father, also an army man, was stationed there), Major Pettigrew has lived in Edgecombe St. Mary for most of his life and his family is well-respected in the village. He puts a great deal of stock in both personal and family honor, though that being said, his only family now consists of his son (a London high-flier that his father can hardly relate to) and a small handful of extended relations (his younger brother's family). At the opening of the novel, Major Pettigrew has just received a call alerting him that his younger brother has died of a heart attack, so the Major isn't quite thinking straight when he answers the doorbell, dressed only in his dead wife's tattered housecoat. At the door is Mrs. Ali, the Pakistani woman who runs the village shop where locals can purchase small odds and ends between visits to larger shops in the nearby town. Having only intended to fetch the newspaper money on behalf of the ill paper boy, Mrs. Ali becomes the Major's unlikely caretaker that morning when she assumes charge of the light-headed fellow.

Once given this opportunity to sit and converse, they discover that they share a large number of things in common, including a love of reading, and the Major finds that staging casual run-ins with Mrs. Ali in the weeks that follow is topping his priority list. Well, at least it vies for the top spot with retrieving a family heirloom from his brother's widow (an old and valuable hunting rifle, one of a pair that the two brothers were given by their father on his deathbed, with the intention to reunite them one day). At the funeral for his brother, the Major's son turns up, engaged to an amazon-like American, and giving more than a hint that if they were to sell the two valuable guns now (aka cash in on the son's presumed inheritance early), they'd make a killing. Disappointed in his son's lack of reverence for the guns (that have meant perhaps too much to the Major himself), he stubbornly attempts to forge through with his own hope of simply reuniting them, not fully processing what the other gun must have symbolized to his younger brother (whose family is under the impression was always a bit slighted in favor of the elder). The major struggles to hold on to the things he has cared for in the past, yet they seem to slip away as he spies a very new love growing in his heart and the question of how much the past matters in favor of the future is a question never absolutely stated but certainly implied. So how much can he keep with the old traditions while embracing new opportunities at living his life? Even if the Major is rather old-fashioned by modern standards and is often bemoaning the manners of the young, Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali find themselves becoming town gossip... and not in any kind of charitable way. Aside from the obvious mixed-race-couple issues, there's also the fact that she's a shopkeeper (working class, you know) and her dead husband's Pakistani family expect that she'll give up her shop to the newly-arrived nephew. As a result, she'd be absorbed by the husband's family, "taken care of" in a way that essentially requires her to give up her independence. And then there's this issue of the rather surly nephew's somewhat mottled recent-past and his newly appeared love-child. On top of all this, the town itself might be seeing a drastic change as the presence of surveyors suggest the local lord might be selling land to offset the costs of owning a manor house, turning their sleepy town into a snooty estate community and poorer members of the community might be squeezed out. With fascinating religious and racial issues coming to surface, this once-sleepy town is sure to be shaken up... and the Major is quite surprised to find himself on the opposite side from where he's been all his life.

Major Pettigrew jokingly refers to himself as "an old git" when speaking with the younger set, though the reader will surely love him off the bat. His humor is sharp and biting (which one can see might have been a problem as it pertains to raising a somewhat insecure son), though his moments of being flustered at confrontations are quite genuine. He's very real and complicated, struggling to deal with his budding mixed-race relationship, his apparently selfish son, and his finally receiving recognition from the lord of the manor just as the village depends upon him to take up the case against the new construction. He grasps and clings at ideas, flustered as they slip off and he has to reconsider his position on a number of fronts. Simonson creates incredibly real scenes of cringe-worthy awkwardness that anyone can recognize from family politics. A large number of characters in this novel (aside from the Major and Mrs. Ali) are people that the reader would love to smack upside the head, but Simonson is such an excellent writer that even they can sometimes have their redeeming features. Background characters rarely feel one-note, populating this small town with very real prejudices and concerns. So many protagonists pretend to evaluate themselves and change within a novel, but Major Pettigrew's assessment of his own desires and the struggle to reach new understandings are very believable, making him even more lovable as a slightly flawed but clearly well-intentioned man. Mrs. Ali, too, has her own internal struggles that are quite poignant, but the real stand-out character is the Major in this love story for those who thought they were past the age where one could experience such grand emotions.

I know I've given a lot of detail here, so it might be odd for me to note that one of the things I appreciated about Simonson's novel was the fact that every detail seemed just enough and the reader was never overwhelmed with excess. Scenes were painted perfectly and while there is a lot going on in this supposedly-sleepy town, I never felt as though Simonson had lost the thread of a storyline in favor of another. My heart swelled and fell along with the Major and Mrs. Ali... and now that it's available in paperback, I'll be urging many friends to pick it up. I certainly hope you enjoy Major Pettigrew's Last Stand as much as I did -- it's truly a gem for those of us who cling to our romantic notions in a changing and sometimes heartless world.

1 comment:

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