For Major Ernest Pettigrew, life in the small village of Edgecombe St. Mary is a daily testament to the splendidly traditional English nature. In his long-time home, Rose Lodge, the Major spends his years of retirement partaking in the intricate social functions of his circle: rounds of golf, shooting parties, and proper afternoon teas. A widower, he has learned to find a sense of familiarity in being alone, and the superficial airs of his society friends feel quite natural. For the Major, though, life changes in an instant after the death of his brother, when he develops a surprising friendship with Jasmina Ali, the village’s widowed shopkeeper. As the Major and Mrs. Ali begin to fall in love, their newfound connection will face all manner of threats: whether from the Major’s friends, who see Mrs. Ali’s Pakastani heritage as an affront to convention, or from Mrs. Ali’s family, who see her widowhood as a sentence to withdraw from living, or even from the Major’s family, who will quickly put their greed over the Major’s wishes. Throughout love and struggle, the eccentricities and unrealistic standards of two very different worlds are slyly turned on their heads as Helen Simonson weaves her witty, delightful debut novel.
Perhaps the greatest strength found in Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, and the quality that carries the novel’s many other merits, is Simonson’s rare ability to work a particularly unforgettable sort of wit. The nature of her humor is consistent and heartwarming, dry without being condescending, which allows her to reach a familiar and welcome place in her readers’ hearts. Combined with her creativity of prose, the narrative world of her novel touches on a memorable whimsy that contributes greatly to the story of Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali. Simonson’s ideas are refreshing and the way she brings them across through the interactions of her characters, under the confident guidance of her appreciation for words, takes the novel to a heightened level of polish.
The full cast of characters in Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand spark to life with grace and humor, particularly the two at the center of the novel’s love story. The romance between Major Pettigrew (at sixty-eight) and Mrs. Ali (a decade younger) proves that youth is futile where chemistry is concerned. Their relationship jumps off the page and envelopes the reader from their first scene together. The attachment between them only continues to grow as the characters meet different social and cultural challenges. Particularly admirable is the way Simonson leads the Major to grow through his relationship with Mrs. Ali, and how the evolution of his character is made evident through the changes in his display of wit. Alternatively, the Major’s son Roger often draws an array of compelling reactions from the reader; the combination of both his childish naïveté and boorish modernity make for a wonderful contrast within himself. Even the way Sandy, Roger’s American girlfriend, is portrayed creates yet another layer of terrific observations from the author. The way Sandy initially appears as a bit of a stereotype in the narrative before the Major warms to her becomes a great dialogue on how people can surprise us: Simonson expertly shows that the Major warms to Sandy and finds her best qualities not by changes made to her American sensibilities, but by his own staunch prejudices becoming relaxed.
Within the community of Edgecombe St. Mary are perhaps some of the most colorful characters, and the way Simonson uses their flamboyance to poke fun at the upper class is at times reminiscent of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford stories. Gaskell’s imaginings set a standard for the idea of a traditionally-rooted English countryside dominated by the pretentious expectations of a generation firm in its ideas, though perhaps entirely at the mercy of a great writer’s determined wit. With Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand Simonson’s combination of warm-hearted love story, sharp wit, and cross-cultural – as well as cross-generational – observations make for a lovely, engaging novel on every level.
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand was my April pick for the 2014 TBR Pile Challenge; I’ve been meaning to read it since it was published four years ago, and it certainly met my expectations. It’s easy to see some of Simonson’s influences in her writing – particularly Jane Austen and Edith Wharton – and I think she does them great justice.
Title: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand
Author: Helen Simonson
Genre: contemporary, romance
Publisher: Random House
Release date: November 30, 2011 (paperback)
Source: Personal collection
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