“Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand”
Written by Helen Simonson
After many false starts, Helen Simonson finally discovered the winning ticket to writing her first published novel. She tells an interviewer she put aside her early efforts at an edgy sort of book that people might expect from a 30-something woman and sat down instead to write the kind of book that she would love to read. That book is the impressive “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” (2010), set in her homeland of England, in a small town in Sussex, populated by an assortment of aging characters and the younger generation who drive them crazy. It’s cozy and light reading but surprisingly satisfying.
I don’t want to suggest that she followed a formula for a flowery “English village” novel. That would not take into account Simonson’s lively sense of humor and the fact that she assertively sets her story in the England of today. It is populated with greedy developers, effete aristocracy and nouveau riche wannabes. The village of Edgecombe St. Mary is also a place that is struggling to accept immigrants into its ranks, a battle that Major Pettigrew finds himself in.
The story’s protagonist will capture your heart. Major Pettigrew is a proper gentleman in his late 60’s with a dry wit and a compassionate soul. As the story opens, the major has just received a call informing him of the sudden death of his brother, Bertie. He hangs up the phone, only to hear a local shopkeeper knocking on his door. It is Mrs. Ali, the Pakistani proprietor of the convenience store, there to collect money for an ailing paperboy. The major wavers with the shocking news he’s just heard; Mrs. Ali fixes him a nice, hot cup of tea, and a friendship begins.
Mrs. Ali and the major, both widowed, realize they share a love of literature, and the two start meeting for tea to discuss great works. Readers are aware that there is romance in the air but the major is sensible and well mannered and doesn’t dare presume anything. His first profession of affection comes one day when he says, “‘I am delighted that we have progressed already to a level of …’ He searched for the right word, recoiling from ‘intimacy’ as if it were sticky with lust. ‘A level above mere pleasant acquaintance, perhaps?’”
Edgecombe St. Mary is a perfect place to settle down in for a mid-winter read. You’ll want to see if in fact love does conquer all, for there are many obstacles for the major to overcome. Simonson’s wise and witty way of treating issues of prejudice, love, aging, friendship and honor provide laughs and maybe even a few tears along the way.