Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is Quite Grand

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (2011)
By Helen Simonson
Random House 978-0812981223
* * * *

Gay love isn’t the only kind that dare not speak its name. Not if you’re a proper English gent living in the tradition-bound village of Edgecombe St. Mary and you find yourself falling for a Pakistani widow. Britain is, after all, a land in which Pakistanis are called “wogs” and Muslims are called “towel heads” (a term, alas, learned from boorish Yanks). But 68-year-old Major Ernest Pettigrew, himself a widower for six years, has spent his life being disciplined, orderly, and proper and is starting to think maybe it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Although village tongues wag, Major Pettigrew shares a love of tea and Kipling with Jasmina Ali and, the more they talk, the more they seem to have in common, even though he’s proper bourgeois and she operates a convenience store that sells goods many locals find exotic, if not dangerous.

The Major certainly has more in common with Mrs. Ali than with his money-grubbing sister-in-law, who wants him to sell a valuable pair of Churchill guns and give her half of the money rather than reuniting the set as the Pettigrew paterfamilias intended when he entrusted each son with one of them. The Major’s son Roger also wants him to sell them so he can get his hands on the money for some of the high-flying London banking schemes in which he’s involved, including Lord Dagenham’s plan to sell off part of the manor to an American developer who would remake the village as a sort of retirement theme park for elderly aristocrats and gentry. The Major finds Dagenham irresponsible, his neighbors annoying, and his son and his American girlfriend insufferable. When you read of the pageant staged by the villagers, you will come to share his disgust. You need not be a devotee of political correctness to conclude they don’t have a multicultural bone in their collective body.

Jasmina, for her part, is growing equally impatient with the Muslim bigotry of her own extended family, including her way-too-serious nephew Abdul Wahid, who doesn’t like women to be in public (though he harbors a few not-so-orthodox secrets). To compound the irony, the Major was an army brat born in Lahore and Jasmina in Cambridge. The novel builds to an inevitable culture clash crescendo.

This is Simonson’s debut novel and an impressive one. Her village characters have enough bigotry and foibles to be something out of Fawlty Towers and this keeps the book amusing rather than annoying. She also makes her characters walk the line between wackiness and obsequiousness, which makes them semi-endearing even in moments in which we’d like to rip out their lungs and feed them to the White Tower ravens. There are the usual pitfalls that come from a Yank (even one who has lived in the UK) interpreting British culture and trying to integrate Brit Speak into the dialogue. I suppose also we might protest that the storyline is ultimately implausible. Whatever. When the Major makes his eponymous last stand, it feels very satisfying. Label this one just a plain old good read.

Rob Weir

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