Book Review: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

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I feel bad for stealing all these books from Emily at As the Crowe Flies (And Reads…), but I haven’t gone wrong with any of her top 10 from 2010 yet, and Helen Simonson’s might be the best yet.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is the story, not surprisingly, of Major Pettigrew. The Major feels to me like he just stepped out of an Agatha Christie novel and smack dab into the 21st century, but in a very good way. Edgecome St. Mary is a little bit like Miss Marples’ St. Mary Mead in that it’s a small English village, complete with its own country club, vicar and local nobility, Lord Dagenham. In the beginning of the novel the Major’s brother, Bertie, has just died, and his grief leads him to strike up an interesting relationship with the widowed Pakistani shopkeepr, Mrs. Ali. There is also the matter of a pair of prize Churchill rifles, one of which belongs to the Major, which were meant to be reunited upon Bertie’s death. Of course, some obstacles arise to the reuniting of these rifles and to the romance of the Major and Mrs. Ali.

None of this does justice to a book which is just simply one of the most perfectly conceived and written novels I’ve read in quite a while. This is not to say it is the most beautiful novel, or has the most spellbinding, lyrical prose. It is a novel of manners, but it is just a perfect specimen of that, and a novel of manners that has a rather timely theme without at all beating its readers over head with any kind of IMPORTANT SOCIAL MESSAGE (hint, hint, wink, wink, nod, nod, say no more). The Major echoes some of Agatha Christie’s characters, but he is much more fully developed than any of hers, and again, he’s living in 2010, not 1952. This novel reminds me most strongly (and this is going to sound really weird) of Pride and Prejudice. Yes, Jane Austen, Elizabeth and Darcy. Only, and I find it hard to believe I’m saying this, but Simonson out-Austen’s Jane Austen. Her tone is very similar to Austen’s in that we are able to laugh at the Major and his son and other characters, while still loving them and being able to imagine them as our real and actual neighbors. And they are, as many of Austen’s characters were, basically good people struggling to realize their better natures. Aren’t we all? Simonson is better than Austen in that even her vaguely “bad” characters never lapse into caricature; even the people who behave quite badly in the novel are still easily imagined as real people, and not just vapid cartoons (I’m thinking specifically of Elizabeth’s mother, who always struck me as amusing, but not very realistic as a character).

If this is a kind of strange version of Pride and Prejudice, the prejudice here is no longer solely about class (though Mrs. Ali is Pakistani and a shopkeeper, which is the reason country club members give for why she could simply not join–she belongs to the trades). What’s beautiful about this novel is that in so many ways it is quintessentially English–English village, English Major who was born in India and lives in a house called Rose Lodge, English club, English hunting, English countryside, English gentry and can you get more English than a novel of manners that smacks of Pride and Prejudice–but also very trickily about the subtle debates about exactly what it does and will mean to be English. How do Mrs. Ali and her family fit into that story? It’s one thing to have immigrants in London and the big cities, but in this novel, they’re there running shops in the very most English of places. I don’t know if this was Simonson’s intention, but the end result is, well, just lovely.

A jackdaw

I will add as a sidenote that it’s also quite nice to look at today’s world from Major Pettigrew’s perspective. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that I agree on so many things with a character whose supposed to be a 60-something retired servant of the Empire (with a capital E).

Favorite passages (and there are so many more I neglected to pick out):

He smiled wryly to hear himself repeating Grace’s words as his own. Here he was dispensing them as advice when he had only just taken them in as a revelation. So, he thought, do all men steal and display the shiny jackdaw treasure of other people’s ideas.

I had to look up jackdaw, but it’s a kind of crow, and therefore likes to collect shiny things.

Would Don Quixote or Sir Galahad have been able to maintain his chivalrous ardor for the romantic quest, wondered the major, if he had been forced to crawl bumper-to-bumper through an endless landscape of traffic cones, belching lorries, and sterile motorway service areas?

“I know something of shame,” said the Major…”How can we not all feel it? We are all small-minded people, creeping about the earth grubbing for our own advantage and making the very mistakes for which we want to humiliate our neighbors…I think we wake up every day with high intentions and by dusk have routinely fallen short. Sometimes I think God created the darkness just so he didn’t have to look at us all the time.”

I believe this quote could very well sum up the novel. Throughout the book, people keep telling the major that they can count on him to do the right thing, and it’s clear he’s not at all certain they’re right, but, they are in the end. Which fits with my growing belief that if you believe that most people are good and kind, you will encounter mostly good and kind people.
 
Upcoming review:  Eva Luna, by Isabel Allende

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Comments

  1. Wonderful review!

    I just picked up this hardback last week at the library's discard stack for the paltry sum of 75 cents. I've heard nothing but good things about this one and your review has prompted me to hurry up and read it. 🙂

  2. Thanks, Jenny. Hope you enjoy it. What a bargain at 75 cents. I try to get most of my books from the local library, and then if I really love them, I buy a copy. I'll be buying a copy of this one. I just became a new follower of your blog.

  3. So much fun to read such an effusive review! I wish I'd had the same reading experience as you did, I'm kind of jealous actually! I loved the Major, and liked Mrs. Ali, but the other characters just didn't seem to have a lot of depth. I kept feeling like it should have said more than it did. Maybe it was a matter of timing? Bummer! I feel like I missed out!

  4. Oh, too bad, Melody. I thought characters like Grace were especially kind of finely drawn. And even the Vicar's wife, Daisy, was more complicated than she might have been. Roger was kind of simple, but I felt like that was because you were seeing him largely as the Major saw him.

    I think maybe I know what you're saying about wishing it said more than it did, but I felt like she was really practicing some serious understatement. So when you get to the scene at the club with the play and Mr. Khan getting all upset, that kind of says everything that needs to be said.

    Sometimes it is all about timing.

  5. I'm so pleased that you liked this one, too! It's clear that we have similar reading tastes and I just love reading your blog. It just seems like such a shame in retrospect that we didn't actually know each other well in college, don't you think?

  6. Oh, I'm so glad to be able to poach all your book recommendations, Emily. I'm always trying to figure out what to read, and now I know I can just see what you've liked. It is too bad we didn't know each other better at Millsaps, but better late than never. I don't know about you, but I was a different person in a lot of ways in college.

  7. Poach away, old girl, poach away! (In a nod to Major Pettigrew, Ret.) When I have time to read some of the backlist books that you've reviewed (for work I have to read mostly new books) I will certainly poach from you.

    Yes, I was a very different person in college, too, and like you, I didn't appreciate Lemuria whilst at Millsaps. Was oddly intimidated by going in there. What is your local indie store now? It's possible that they were in attendance in DC with me…

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