In Edgecombe St. Mary, England, Major Ernest Pettigrew lives a quiet life surrounded by books, friends and hunting companions. A widower, the Major has filled the world he once shared with Nancy, his beloved wife, with the words of Rudyard Kipling and other classic authors. He’s managed to form a peaceful existence apart from his grown son, Roger — a man who spends more time worrying about careers than tending his relationship with his kind, outgoing American girlfriend.
And then steps in Mrs. Ali.
In the wake of his brother’s death, the Major has floundered with simultaneous feelings of grief, remorse and anger over a gun in Bertie’s possession. Left to the boys by their dying father, the twin guns were intended to be a set — but Ernest, entitled to both as the eldest son, found one of the two given to his younger brother. Bertie’s widow doesn’t have immediate plans to reunite the guns, it seems, and would rather see them sold for a healthy sum than given to the Major. And he won’t stand for it — though it’s not about the guns, he thinks. It’s about more. It’s about a lifetime.
It’s under this tidal wave of feeling that Mrs. Ali waltzes into Major Pettigrew’s life, her presence a soothing balm akin to a mother’s touch. The widowed owner of a local shop, Jasmina Ali — a Pakistani woman who has spent her life in England — rejoices in the work of Kipling as much as the Major, and their unlikely friendship begins to progress over shared cups of tea, leisurely book discussions and rides into town.
Too bad Edgecombe St. Mary doesn’t seem to progress with it.
Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, my second read for the literary fiction category of the Indie Lit Awards, is a quiet novel centering around family, expectation, grief, friendship and late-blossoming love. While the romance between the Major and Mrs. Ali is certainly a central tenet of the plot, the novel seems to vibrate more with stories of loss, duty and expectation than joyful displays of love.
What I enjoyed the most about Simonson’s novel, described as a “comedy of manners” by some, is its distinctly British flare. While Roger dates an American, Sandy, the differences between she and her new British neighbors and boyfriend are very pronounced. The characters in Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand pay careful attention to the differences between residents, not the similarities; a distinct sense of “otherness” plays a large role in the book. Frank Ferguson, an American with Scottish roots and a title to his name, is made to feel like he’ll never be completely accepted in British circles — unless he brings his checkbook; Mrs. Ali’s nephew, Abdul Wahid, is too young, grouchy and Pakistani to be accepted in the village — or as a business owner. But they all wish it could be different.
It’s hard not to fall in love with the Major. He’s polite to a fault; poetic at heart; loyal and true to those closest to him. With a flighty, self-absorbed son like Roger — a man I wanted to punch in the face until the closing pages of the book — the Major certainly has had his hands full. And it’s for that reason that I wanted only the best for him . . . and so, of course, hoped he would find love with Mrs. Ali. No matter what anyone else had to say about it.
Major Pettigrew tackles many Big Issues like racism, the destruction and building-up of the English countryside (always a hot button issue), family dynamics, aging and religion, but it manages to do so in a way that didn’t make me feel like I was reading a sermon or political pamphlet. Simonson doesn’t seem to have an agenda — unless it’s one of tolerance, the overarching message I felt here.
Did I fall as in love with this novel as many other readers have? No. I’ll be honest: at many points, I found it slow. Over the course of a week’s worth of reading, I often found myself having to backtrack to pick the story up again. Many characters came and go at random, and many of the village residents were interchangeable to me. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy Major Pettigrew; I did. I just felt bogged down at points, lost in a maze of people and issues that were hard for me to sort through. And sometimes, I found it boring.
Still, for readers who enjoy British fiction and novels of manners, Simonson’s book might be a worthwhile companion for a Sunday afternoon — and is one I would recommend. Though I snorted aloud at some of the Major’s sarcastic comments, I didn’t find this book to be “funny” by any stretch . . . seek it out for a thoughtful, memorable and contemporary look at love, aging and family.
3.5 out of 5!