MAJOR PETTIGREW’S LAST STAND by Helen Simonson

Book Quote:

“We are all small-minded people, creeping about the earth grubbing for our own advantage and making the very mistakes for which we want to humiliate our neighbors…. I think we wake up every day with high intentions and by dusk we have routinely fallen short.”

Book Review:

Review by Eleanor Bukowsky (MAR 5, 2010)

There is a great deal to like in Helen Simonson’s debut novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, whose protagonist is sixty-eight year old widower Major Ernest Pettigrew. The Major, who lives in a small English village named Edgecombe St. Mary, occasionally plays golf with his cronies, dines at the club, and is well-respected among the townspeople. Still, something is missing. He still remembers his late wife, Nancy, with longing, and he derives small solace from the indifferent ministrations of his only son, Robert, a self-centered social climber who has acquired a forthright and droll American girlfriend named Sandy. When Pettigrew hears of his younger brother’s death, he is overcome with grief, although the two had not seen each other much of late.

Unexpectedly, the widowed local shopkeeper, Mrs. Jasmina Ali, drops by on an errand, and when she learns that the Major’s brother has died, she kindly offers her assistance. Gradually, the two become friends and are surprised to learn that they are both devoteés of classic literature. Mrs. Ali and the Major make every effort to keep their budding relationship under wraps to prevent their hidebound neighbors from gossiping. Still, other events that neither could have foreseen threaten to separate them.

Simonson’s premise is wonderful, and Pettigrew is a lovely character who reminds us that old age is not a disease. Although the Major suffers from insomnia, is not as quick as he once was, and may be a tad forgetful, he can still shoot, play a round of golf, and is capable of harboring romantic feelings for a lovely and sensitive woman. Jasmina, who is fifty-eight, is attached to her family. She is also proud, intelligent, and independent, a perfect match for the major. The dialogue is bright and witty, the descriptive writing vivid, and certain satirical passages are laugh-out-loud funny. There are engrossing subplots that deal with a bitter single mother, a set of valuable sporting guns, an arrogant nephew, and Robert’s tireless efforts to be accepted by men of wealth and influence. However, the themes that resonate most are that grown children should not dictate to their parents; there is no room for prejudice in a civilized society; and, in a small town, it is impossible to stop busybodies from wagging their tongues and shaking their fingers.

This would have been an even more successful novel had Simonson shortened it by fifty pages or so and maintained a consistently lighthearted tone throughout. Alas, she allows a few melodramatic touches to mar the ending, which is a bit convoluted and protracted. Still, most of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a genuine delight and a moving tribute to the principles that many espouse, but few adhere to: We should make a genuine effort to treat our elders with respect; to be open-minded about people’s differences; to remember that good manners never go out of style; and to recognize that lasting romantic love is based not only on physical attraction, but also on shared interests and genuine affection. It is refreshing to see Mrs. Ali stand tall and declare, “I will rule my own life, thank you.”

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 184 readers
PUBLISHER: Random House; 1 edition (March 2, 2010)
REVIEWER: Eleanor Bukowsky
AMAZON PAGE: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Helen Simonson
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another “widower” novel:

A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian by Marina Lewycka

Bibliography:


March 5, 2010 · Judi Clark · 4 Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: 2010 Favorites, Debut Novel, End-of-Life, Family Matters, Humorous, United Kingdom

4 Responses

  1. Kirstin - March 6, 2010

    Nice review, Eleanor. Thank you.

    I liked Simonson’s debut very much. I agree that the denouement stretches credulity somewhat, and that it perhaps too obviously presented the major with a choice between his longstanding attachment to his guns and Mrs. Ali. However, the staged drama didn’t bother me that much. I thought the couple’s “running away” was also a trifle stagey, but did enjoy it when they were isolated together. The sub-story about the son’s girlfriend very sad, and Pettigrew’s neighbor’s wisdom about the difference between being in love and settling for a comfortable but not passionate relationship played to me. This is one of those deceptively “simple” books that contains many undercurrents.

  2. booklover10 - March 8, 2010

    Thanks, Kirstin. I loved 3/4 of this book. The subtlety and satire were wonderful.

    When Simonson changed the tone of the story and went down a preachy and melodramatic path, she lost me. I have found that, quite often, authors have an easier time writing good beginnings than satisfying endings.

  3. poornima - March 9, 2010

    Hi Eleanor:

    I picked up this book after reading a rave review in the New York Times. The review you have written here perfectly captures everything I didn’t quite like about the book. Thank you!

    Poornima

  4. booklover10 - March 9, 2010

    Dear Poornima:
    Thank you for your comment. It’s disconcerting when respected critics rave about a book, you open the novel with sky-high expectations, and you subsequently find flaws that you were not anticipating. Since the beginning of “Major Pettigrew” is so terrific, I was expecting Simonson to maintain the same light satirical touch throughout.

    All the best,
    Eleanor

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