It's funny all the different things people will take away from one good book.
I had never heard of Major Pettigrew's Last Stand when it landed on my desk, but its opening scene hooked me. Intrigued by the force and originality of the writing, and still at my desk, I searched the Internet for reviews and found them uniformly positive, but always with the critic trying to deposit Major Pettigrew into a different pigeonhole.
One critic described the novel as an intelligent updating of "the English village novel," a genre known for its colourful stock characters (the stuffy retired colonel, the wacky vicar, etc.) and picturesque settings (cottages, hedgerows, sheep). Another placed it in a new, and apparently growing, genre: "romance for wrinklies," a reference to the age of the title character and the woman he falls in love with. Another reviewer, perhaps already wrinkly himself, simply called it a "romantic comedy."
None of these is incorrect, and in fact there is no question that the author, Helen Simonson, who grew up in a small East Sussex town (but now lives in the United States), is winking at the English village novel of yore. But it still seems downright odd to try so determinedly to pigeonhole, and thereby neuter, a generous-hearted novel about people of real character struggling to overcome a vast array of benumbing conventions: those of race, class and family; of the political correctness that seems to be the modern world's only answer to the sins of past empires; and the particularly self-serving ethics espoused by the Youtube generation.
I knew this novel was going to be different and special when, 66 pages in, a white lady selling tea from a kiosk in a seaside park makes a low-level racist comment to a young woman of Indian descent. As Major Pettigrew, at the kiosk to buy a tea for Mrs. Ali, the woman of Pakistani descent with whom he is falling in love, wonders what to say or do, and the offended young woman is bristling for a fight, Mrs. Ali suddenly speaks up:
"The world is full of small ignorances," said a quiet voice. Mrs. Ali appeared at [Major Pettigrew's]elbow and gave the young woman a stern look. "We must all do our best to ignore them and thereby keep them small, don't you think?"
And with that, the situation was diffused and I was joyfully lost in a world that I was pained to leave at book's end.
Helen Simonson turns out to be a terrific writer of male characters
Simonson starts her story quickly, with Major Pettigrew, a widower of 64, answering the door to his home in the invented English village of Edgecombe St. Mary. There is Mrs. Ali, the local "Paki" shopkeeper, herself a widow, come to collect "the newspaper money," as the paper boy is sick. The major is in shock, have just learned that his only sibling, a brother, has died of a heart attack. In his grief and sudden aloneness, he loosens his stiff upper lip and explains to Mrs. Ali why he is watery-eyed and fumbling. And with that she immediately and with great poise swoops into his life, taking his weakened arm and walking him to a seat in his living room, and then fetching him that British cure-all, a cup of tea.
Their romance develops from there, slowly of course, partly because they are properly reserved and partly because they are a bit surprised to find themselves still able to fall in love, but also because they face the hurdles of convention. Many a hurdle is raised by their own families. Mrs. Ali must deal with Muslim traditions that dictate that a widow should give up the shop she ran with her deceased husband and disappear from sight; the Major, meanwhile, must contend with a hilariously self-absorbed son in the finance business who wouldn't mind see his father conveniently stashed in a retirement home so he can cash in some of his inheritance.
And then there is Edgecombe St. Mary, the little English village whose gaze the Major feels so keenly. His golf club in particular, with its restrictive, racist rules, is a source of much gossip and speculation about his involvement with Mrs. Ali. The Major must also contend with the battlelines drawn by the prospect of a hideous new housing development being built in the fields behind his home - a development his preening son is keen to profit from.
He and Mrs. Ali, as he calls her throughout the book, rely on their mutual belief in the importance of civility and selflessness to overcome all the ignorances, large and small, strewn in their path. This includes their own; Simonson doesn't present her title character as flawless. Major Pettigrew struggles with petty jealousy (symbolized by a valuable hunting gun that he wants to recuperate from his dead brother's home), biases (he unfairly judges his son's girlfriend because she is American) and, most tragically, his default reliance on British class conventions in difficult moments.
Helen Simonson turns out to be a terrific writer of male characters. She describes Major Pettigrew's inner turmoil with poignant veracity, particularly in a critical scene where he compromises his relationship with Mrs. Ali and can only watch her walk away, disappointed and hurt. "...He knew he was a fool. Yet at that moment, he could not find a way to be a different man." Every guy who has ever blown it knows exactly what the Major was feeling.
The other thing about Simonson is that she is having a great time with her first novel. She is unsparing in her willingness to send up her characters and their little village, and she is often downright funny - that intelligent kind of funny that catches readers by surprise and makes them re-read a sentence several times to figure out how the author managed to make them laugh out loud so unexpectedly.
The most fun is watching Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali up-end their lives and those of the people around them as he pursues her. The book is at times violent, at times melodramatic, but almost always pitch-perfect in its demonstration of how ridiculous our small ignorances can be - and how magnificent we are when we rise above them. The reader roots for Ernest and Jasmina (that's their given names) and doesn't fret about the potential bathos of a happy ending, because it is clear they will have earned their happiness through the strength of their characters.
Peter Scowen is the editor of Globebooks.com.
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