30. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

“Major Pettigrew was still upset about the phone call from his brother’s wife and so he answered the doorbell without thinking.”

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson

I have been on a such a roll lately with contemporary fiction, most of it (barring one huge Bardo shaped exception), written by women.  Having adored Helen Simonson's The Summer Before the War - and having her debut stack in my too be read pile - I naturally decided to give it a whirl. I, of course, was never going to love it as much I was going to love the book about World War One Britain, but this is, nonetheless, a fun read. 

It is a love story between two mature and seemingly disparate people.  First we have Major Pettigrew, a retired Army man straight out of a Christie novel. I wasn’t even really aware that England still had fusty old Army men who are considered to be “gentry” and live in old family homes in small villages.  Major Pettigrew is a widower and as the novel opens he has just lost his brother.  He is feeling unmoored from his roots and a bit adrift at life.  At just this time, he deepens his acquaintance with Ms. Jasmina Ali, the widowed owner of the local shopkeeper.  It starts with a favor and a cup of tea, but they soon discover despite their wide differences - she was born in Pakistan, he is the very model of a modern major general - that they have much more in common than they had ever thought possible.  Will they be able to overcome their natural reservedness - and the disapprobriation of their friends and family - to find a real connection?

The plot as I describe it sounds super banal and cliched, and in a way it is. You see what’s coming from a mile away with almost every element.  And yet, Simonson manages to outwrite her basic story.  She has created characters who are more than the plot demands them to be, and thus, real life, in its messy slippy elements starts poking into her well-made story.  Which is to say, yes, you can guess how this ends, but she manages to make it seem like reality as it happens.  And, indeed, the reason you can figure out some of the stops on the way is that the people do act like real people.  The local members of the golf club would put on some sort of horrible Punjab party, and treat the actual South Asian guests as props.  Major Pettigrew’s son would be strange and odd to Ms. Ali at first - just as her nephew would reject him as unable to understand their culture.  

The thing is, I see the flaws with the novel as I write about it, but when I think about it I remember how I enjoyed getting to know the characters.  Especially close minded, fusty - but ultimately brave Major Pettigrew. I think you’d enjoy reading this - especially if you like books about regular people trying to figure out their lives.  

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017