Wednesday, April 11, 2012

REVIEW: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson


When retired Major Pettigrew strikes up an unlikely friendship with Mrs. Ali, the Pakistani village shopkeeper, he is drawn out of his regimented world and forced to confront the realities of life in the twenty-first century. Brought together by a shared love of literature and the loss of their respective spouses, the Major and Mrs. Ali soon find their friendship on the cusp of blossoming into something more. But although the Major was actually born in Lahore, and Mrs. Ali was born in Cambridge, village society insists on embracing him as the quintessential local and her as a permanent foreigner. The Major has always taken special pride in the village, but will he be forced to choose between the place he calls home and a future with Mrs. Ali?

Hardcover, 358 pages
Published March 2nd 2010 by Random House (first published 2010)
ISBN 0385668643 (ISBN13: 9781400068937)

About the Author
from the author's website

I have lived in America for over twenty years. I am a long-time and proud resident of Brooklyn, New York, though I have also spent some time living in the Washington DC area. However, I was born in England, and when I was a teenager, my family achieved the English dream - to move to a house in the country. 

East Sussex, with its sleepy villages, medieval smuggling towns, and unique pebble-bank shores is my vision of 'home.' My family lives near Rye, a 14th Century smuggling port on a cobbled hill, from which the sea receded long ago. It is marooned in the eerie landscape once home to smugglers, yet clings to its designation as a member of the Cinque Ports. Close by are the seaside towns of Hastings and Eastbourne and to the west, the Downs swell up into a ridge of grassy hills topped by the hundred mile trail known as the South Downs Way. It is literary country - Henry James at Lamb House, Rye; Kipling at Batemans, Burwash; Virginia Woolf at Monk's House, near Lewes - and this heritage was always a great inspiration to me.

As a young woman, I could not wait to go to college in London, or to move three thousand miles away from home to America. Yet I have always carried with me a longing for England that will not fade. I think this dichotomy - between the desire for home and the urge to leave - is of central interest to my life and my writing. —Helen Simonson

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My Thoughts
Major Pettigrew was still upset about the phone call from his brother's wife and so he answered the doorbell without thinking.

The story takes place in the fictionalized village of Edgecombe St. Mary, which would probably look something like the traditional village scene below.

Okeford Fitzpaine, quintessential English village scene - - 473400

Major Pettigrew is having a difficult time. His brother just died, the gun he has always expected to inherit has gone to someone else, and he's at his wit's end with his self-centered son. The local store owner Mrs. Ali is having a difficult time herself. She is viewed in her Pakistani culture as having reached an age when she needs to hand things over to the next generation to carry on, and this isn't something about which she is very happy.

This was a charming story. It wasn't an exciting story or an especially challenging story, but it was quaint and charming.

Most of the main characters were very likable, and people I would actually like to know in real life. Major Pettigrew can be a bit surly at times, but I happen to like that about him. Mrs. Ali is warm and thoughtful, and carries herself with great poise. Grace is the sweetest and most forgiving of women. The Major’s son Roger is a grown spoiled brat, snobbish and quite a bit self-centered and inconsiderate. Sandy is a strong and independent American woman whom the Major's son brings home, and initially grating to a proper Englishman, she has a softness that eventually wins over the Major.

The Major and Mrs. Ali find themselves in a similar position. Mrs. Ali finds she is expected by her culture to give her life over to the next generation (in her case, this being her nephew), while the Major is similarly expected by his son to do the same and hand over what is precious to him.

This story showcases the underpinnings of a small village, the bigotry that can exist anywhere, and the difficulties of the older generation who are viewed as being at the end of their lives. However it also shows how pure love can be when experienced at an advanced age. In fact, someone in my book club stated that the courtship period in a relationship seems to last longer later in life. There are no kids to distract you, and more time to focus on one another. And another said that her teenage son had remarked to her that, thanks to a world of technology that offers constant connection, his generation doesn't get to experience the wonder of "anticipation" early on in a relationship. We all know that excitement-- the butterflies in the stomach, the restless impatience-- of waiting and anticipating seeing a new love again, or having the phone ring and hearing their voice. That sense of anticipation has been lost to the new generation. More's the pity.

Another undercurrent in the book is the racism and classism that exists in Britain and many places around the world. Major Pettigrew, the son of a British soldier, was born in Lahore, Pakistan. Mrs. Ali is of Pakistani descent, yet was born in Britain. However it is Mrs. Ali that is viewed as the foreigner and looked down upon, while Major Pettigrew is a respected man of class and wealth.

Of minor note, the book does make mention of Huguenots, which (being a Huguenot), is something that I always note:
“It says, ‘Mark Salisbury married this day to Daniela de Julien, late of La Rochelle.’ This is the first record of Huguenots settling in the village.” (p. 32)
A couple of other quotes that I noted:
“I don’t believe the greatest views in the world are great because they are vast or exotic,” she said. “I think their power comes from the knowledge that they do not change. You look at them and you know they have been the same for a thousand years.” (p. 108)

She raised an eyebrow in mock surprise, hugging the boy hard to her ample poncho. The boy whimpered under his breath and the Major hoped he was being comforted rather than suffocated. (p. 193)
I read the e-book edition, but I have seen the book cover and love it! It actually took a while for me to notice that it was not a man and woman embracing, but only coats and hats hanging on a coat rack. Clever!

The book is written in manageable chapters of 12-18 pages, allowing someone like me who reads pretty slowly to read at least a chapter most days.

My final word: A charming story with charming characters. This wasn't a book that I loved, but one that I did like quite well.

Cover: 8.5/10
Writing Style: 8/10
Characters: 8.5/10
Storyline/Plot: 7.5/10
Interest/Uniqueness: 8/10

My Rating: 8 out of 10


I purchased this e-book myself as a monthly selection for my book club. Any comments are my honest opinion.

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