“He could not help but register a certain sense of exhilaration at having thrust himself into the heart of Mrs. Ali’s life in such an extraordinary manner. He had acted spontaneously. He had asserted his own wishes. He was tempted to celebrate his own boldness with a large glass of Scotch, but as he reached the kitchen he decided that a large glass of sodium bicarbonate would be more prudent.” (170)
I felt the similarly by page 170. I couldn’t help but register a certain sense of exhilaration at having thrust myself into this novel in such an extraordinary manner. I had acted spontaneously, picking the novel up from the rapid reads display. What had I gotten myself into? This is hardly a book I would have checked-out; though I admit to remember seeing it on a number of “best of” lists. I felt rewarded for having dived right in; and yet, a “large glass of sodium bicarbonate” seemed prudent; I could sense its necessity.
Invested, I could only see the story through to the end. I’m glad I did.
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson
Random House, 2010
Tradepaper, 355 pages.
“In the small village of Edgecombe St. Mary in the English countryside lives Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired), the unlikely hero of Helen Simonson’s wondrous debut. Wry, courtly, opinionated, and completely endearing, the Major leads a quiet life valuing the proper things that Englishmen have lived by for generations: honor, duty, decorum, and a properly brewed cup of tea. But then his brother’s death sparks an unexpected friendship with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the Pakistani shopkeeper from the village. Drawn together by their shared love of literature and the loss of their spouses, the Major and Mrs. Ali soon find their friendship blossoming into something more. But village society insists on embracing him as the quintessential local and regarding her as the permanent foreigner. Can their relationship survive the risks one takes when pursuing happiness in the face of culture and tradition?” publisher’s comments
The amusement over my husband and daughter thinking it odd to see me reading Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, was compounded when I told my parent’s of my latest read. “Doesn’t sound like one of your reads,” was the gist of their lengthier response. A romantic drama starring upper-aged protagonists? It isn’t ageism—precisely. I tend to avoid romantic dramas in general, and especially those set in a contemporary time or location.
Simonson’s/Pettigrew’s wry humor is fantastic, and is easily the first reason a body should read this novel. The romance is sweet, without being saccharine and thus demeaning. Mrs. Ali’s, Grace’s, and Pettigrew’s insights are unmatched and remind me of why we need older and wiser people in our lives. These are hardly puttering characters. Yes, Simonson would elegantly counter that insidious devil ageism, while just as delicately finding humor where appropriate. Humans at every stage are marvelously amusing.
Mrs. Ali is beautiful. We find adoration through the Major, but also through the strength of her character. However, it is Major Pettigrew that is the most enchanting. For me, he conjured an aged Colin Firth character and overwhelmingly summoned the image of my older English English professor who visited for the summer and had the misfortune of having me in his Modern British Lit and NW Contemporary Lit classes. I adore that man.
Perhaps, the first blush is doting. Major Pettigrew is a bit vulnerable when we meet him; but hardly infantile—bless Simonson for that. Indeed, any parent who wishes their child would cease infantilizing them, here’s the next holiday gift. Major Pettigrew will not be robbed of his masculinity. He still has his gun after all (p8). And we’re promised that he hasn’t “ossified” as a human being. “He acknowledged a notion that he might wish to see Mrs. Ali again outside the shop, and wondered whether this might be proof that he was not as ossified as his sixty-eight years, and the limited opportunities of village life, might suggest” (8).
[Mrs. Ali] said, “I’ll drive you myself. I was on my way to Hazelbourne anyway.”
“Oh I couldn’t possibly…” he began. He didn’t like being driven by a woman. He hated their cautious creeping about at intersections, their heavy-handed indifference to the nuances of gear changing, and their complete ignorance of the rearview mirror. Many an afternoon he had crept along the winding lanes behind some slow female driver who blithely bobbed her head to a pop radio station, her stuffed animals nodding their own heads in time on the rear shelf. “I couldn’t’ possibly,” he repeated.
She drove like a man, aggressively changing gear into the turns accelerating away, swinging the tiny Honda over the hills with relish. She had opened her window slightly and the rush of air blew ripples in her rose silk headscarf and tossed stray black locks of hair across her face. She brushed them away impatiently while gunning the car into a flying leap over a small humpbacked bridge.
“How are you feeling?” she asked, and the Major wasn’t sure how to answer. Her driving was making him slightly sick, but in the excited, pleasant manner that small boys on roller coasters feel sick.” (13)
Mrs. Ali isn’t the only unexpected delight. Simonson peels back the façade of otherwise anonymous or mis-labeled people. In a world obsessed with appearances, and thus labeling accordingly, Simonson creates greater and truer complexity. The novel enjoys upsetting the cart. The quintessential Englishman, Major Pettigrew, was born in India (while his father served there). The equally “quintessential” Pakastani (as some would insist upon) was born in Cambridge and was not well-traveled. Grace isn’t desperate, but measured. Amina isn’t feckless. And yet, some characters, though longing to appear more, are portrayed by Simonson exactly as they are—petty and limited. Roger is an ass. Pettigrew is a narrator whose observations are convincingly astute in their reluctance, and severely lit when offended. All of it so eloquently delivered.
“I agree you’re right, at least when it comes to the working classes and foreigners,” said Roger. “Totally oblivious about birth control and things. But we’re not like them, Sandy and I.”
“The human race is all the same when it comes to romantic relations,” said the Major. “A startling absence of impulse control combined with complete myopia.” (181).
The casual bigotry of the characters in Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is breathtaking. The handling of the racism and ageism beautifully done. I wish more had Simonson’s deft hand. She’s blunt. And at times subtle. Simonson creates villainous characters/traits without outright painting the pointed hats on their heads. Simonson is seamless in her characterization, as well as her setting. The two are often knotted together.
“[Major Pettigrew] was prepared to admit that he might be prejudiced, but what was one supposed to think of a country where history was either served in theme parks by employees wearing mob caps and long skirts over their sneakers, or was torn down—taken apart for the wide-plank lumber?” (173-4).
Pettigrew makes more than a few pointed observations about America. In this one, I found a reflection of a fear Pettigrew holds for his own country, a once great Empire being itself colonized. The countryside invaded by urbanites, gentrified villages; the boutique cottage-market, antiseptically quaint; Disneyland invades; inauthentic replication demolishes that which it would capture; so beautifully played out in the cottage Roger and Sandy rent and refurbish.
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand observes how cultural tradition holds hands with the preservation of estate. How tradition/Culture are often linked directly to community; indeed, communities are formed out of shared tradition/culture. How does a community function when its population is diverse? When the differences are often divisive? (And how manufactured is the division?) The novel provides its own solution to the problem, by maintaining its focus on human interaction, the kind stripped of societal machination.
“Unlike you, who must do a cost-benefit analysis of every human interaction,” [Major Pettigrew] said, “I have no idea what I hope to accomplish. I only know that I must try to see her. That’s what love is a bout, Roger. It’s when a woman drives all lucid thought from your head; when you are unable to contrive romantic stratagems, and the usual manipulations fail you; when all your carefully laid plans have no meaning and all you can do is stand mute in her presence. You hope she takes pity on you and drops a few words of kindness into the vacuum of your mind.” (298)
In courting terms here, humans finding a place where upon meeting, the contrivance of stratagems, the usual manipulations fail, and carefully laid plans have no meaning. Interactions such as these are found throughout the novel, captured moments where two humans, with the potential of being at odds, find a very real connection; and an authentic relationship is formed—not wholly painless, but quite beautifully affected. The novel also delivers these moments for the reader; when reading, you hope Simonson takes pity on you and drops a few words of kindness into the vacuum of your mind.
“Major wondered whether Roger was also smelling again the carbolic and the roses on the bedside table and seeing the greenish light of the hospital room and Nancy’s face, grown as thin and beautiful as a painted medieval saint, with only her eyes still burning with life. He had struggled in those last hours, as had she, to find words that were not the merest of platitudes. Words had failed him then In the awful face of death, which seemed so near and yet so impossible, he had choked on speech as if his mouth were full of dry hay. Poems and quotations, which he had remembered using to soothe others on those useless condolence notes and in the occasional eulogy, seemed specious and an exercise of his own vanity. He could only squeeze his wife’s brittle hand while the useless pleadings of Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gently into that good night…,” beat in his head like a drum.” (299)
The writing is good, you noticed. I savored the long sentences, the expansive vocabulary, and the witty dialogue (internal and out). I admired Simonson’s ease in juxtaposing the light-hearted and the deeply concerning. I appreciated that my heart could be charmed and my thoughts provoked, and that I could linger over both even as the story urged me onward, deepening my investment and affection. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand was an unexpected pleasure—and perhaps that made it all the more delightful, though I doubt it. I am glad to have read it. And I look forward to reading it again.