Tuesday, December 28, 2010

REVIEW: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Having had a stressful Christmas week for a variety of reasons, I was fortunate in my Christmas weekend book choice, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson. This is a gentle, cozy, romantic story about two people who are middle-aged (their children consider them quite elderly) and yet who are not at all ready to be put out to pasture.

Major Pettigrew, a widower, is the picture of an old English gentleman. As eldest son, he inherited the family’s rather crumbling modest estate along with an enormous pride in his British heritage and one of a pair of "Churchills." His Churchill is a valuable old hunting gun that would be worth even more if it had been kept with its mate. His brother inherited the other, with the understanding that the guns were to be reunited on the death of one or the other, and handed down as a pair to the next generation. As the book opens, Pettigrew has just learned of the death of his brother. His reaction is a mixture of shock, grief—and concern for the guns.

At this moment, Mrs. Ali enters the scene. The widowed owner of a local convenience store, she is intelligent, cultured, educated, and comes from a Pakistani family (although she herself was born and raised in England.) She brews him some tea; they chat; and Pettigrew realizes how much they have in common.
The story then takes us through the aftermath of the death of Pettigrew’s brother. We explore the people of the small English village and their prejudices. We suffer through the quarrels and bad behavior of both families. We smile at the idiosyncracies of the villagers and Pettigrew’s wry commentary. We watch Pettigrew scheme and agonize over his Churchills while silently criticizing everyone else with an interest in the guns for the way they scheme and agonize. And we watch the unlikely friendship between the "old English gentleman" and the "Pakistani shopwoman" grow into something more. Pettigrew does not behave well at all times himself, but he is always polite—which is, he was taught, the most important thing. It is fascinating to watch him struggle with his own notions of what is right, so deeply ingrained for so many years.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a lovely and entirely satisfactory tale of newfound love at its most surprising.