Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand
by Helen Simonson
I settled into this book like a cat on a lap–it was a comfortable story, warm and familiar, and not overly challenging. Kind of a second or third cousin to Elegance of the Hedgehog with a nod to Remains of the Day, I felt right at home. (It need not be a spoiler alert, though, to say that the ending of Pettigrew was more satisfying than either of those novels … or was it?) Having heard the author interviewed on NPR, and then hearing Diane Rehm’s Reader’s Review this past summer, it was on my wish list just waiting for paperback release.
We meet both the Major and Mrs. Ali, the novel’s two main characters, when Mrs. Ali comes to collect newspaper money– and Major Pettigrew is reeling from a phone call telling him his brother Bertie died the night before. While their relationship has been up to this point one of a friendly shopkeeper and loyal customer, sharing such an intimate moment brings a momentous change. A widower for years, Major Pettigrew’s life has slowly stiffened and grown circumspect–and Mrs. Ali, a beautiful widow, exotic in her Pakistani heritage and lovely in her sensitive demeanor, begins to soften the carefully drawn lines of his existence.
As might be expected (or perhaps only to fulfill a British stereotype), the village of Edgecombe St. Mary is unsettled by this “unseemly” friendship. Running parallel to the Major’s story is the story of his son Roger and his American fiance Sandy, and Mrs. Ali’s nephew Abdul Wahid and his wild-child lover Amina. In all we see the painful reality (and sometimes comedy) of lives bound up in deceit and tradition, rather than simply giving over to love. A minor story involving a Lord Dagenham, a pushy American land developer, and a pair of treasured Churchill shotguns seems unnecessary at times–or perhaps it is only included as a foil for the novel’s musty tradition motif.
Definitely a good read for back-to-back snow days.