Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a lovely book. Charming and funny, Helen Simonson’s first novel is a gem.
Major Pettigrew is of one of the older families in Sussex, England, the sort of quintessential British military man characterized by loyalty to one’s country, character, and politeness above all else. He is stung by his only son’s banking career and attachment to an equally ambitious and far too casual American woman (she called him “Ernest” when first meeting him, instead of his preferred “Major”). He is a widower, and the sudden loss of his only brother, Bertie, brings to mind an array of emotions, some of which he hadn’t expected, particularly with regard to the bequest of a hunting gun which matched his own. Complicating his life was Mrs. Ali, a widowed Pakistani shopkeeper who aroused in him an unexpected but not unwelcome passion.
Simonson does a remarkable job illustrating the messiness of culture, religion, and generation in this complex love story. Her writing is lyrical and wonderfully descriptive, so that the reader can smell the compost as the Major’s neighbor hides between her compost heap and hedge to spy on surveyors on her neighbor’s property, or feel the dampness of the air in the Colonel’s hunting cabin, or see the gaudy imitation flowers at the club dance. The narrative is funny and bittersweet, with the Major's dry humor and the situations that are nearly slapstick but entirely plausible. He describes the waitresses at the club as having "sullen charms" and "culled from the pool of unmotivated young women being spat out by the local school, (who) specialized in a mood of suppressed rage." And when offering commentary on his son's love life, the Major opines, "The human race is all the same when it comes to romantic relations. A startling absence of impulse control combined with complete myopia."
The author is an engaging story-teller, allowing the plot to develop to several points of crescendo, but also providing a pleasing resolution, so that the reader isn’t left to develop her or his own conclusions and suppose what might have occurred. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand raises many issues suitable for book club discussions and there are analogies to be made from the Major’s father’s grand endeavors and Major Pettigrew’s own, so that this book can be read for pure enjoyment, for the study of writing techniques, and for exploring larger topics of religion, culture, and generation differences in the world today.
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is one of my favorite reads of 2010. It was published this year by Random House.