Lazy Sunday book review

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson is a gem for those who like a good story laced with British understated wit and incisive, (but not cynical) observations on how people accommodate to others who are from different backgrounds. It also has a lovely grown-up romance that plays out against some hilarious scenes of culture clash in a small English village. Major Pettigrew (retired) leads a quiet, proper life until his brother’s death sparks an unlikely friendship with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, a Pakistani shopkeeper and recent widow. Their growing affection for each other unsettles her extended, traditional family and the Major’s supercilious son, Roger, who can’t feature his father stepping out of his class. The entire village of Edgecombe St. Mary observes and comments on the propriety of this most unusual relationship. The ensuing drama when east meets west at the local country club’s annual dance, complete with an ill-advised “Indian” theme, is a deftly-written commentary on the best and worst of society. The story is full of finely-drawn characters who populate the subplots, including a seedy land development scheme, the hit-and-miss relationship of the Major’s son and his sleek American girlfriend, Mrs. Ali’s progressive niece and her traditional suitor, and the struggle over an exquisite, and valuable pair of Churchill shotguns.

I first read this book because it was on the list for the Drop-In, Guilt-Free Book Group that meets at A Novel Experience in Zebulon. I thought it was going to be a so-so, burlesque romp of a book and I probably would never have picked it up, but for the book club. It turned out to be something much more. It’s a delightful, wry, complex, risky love story that had me alternately laughing out loud at the Major’s barbed commentary and racing to the end to see if the Major and Mrs. Ali would succumb to the pressures from their respective societies.

The story covers themes that will resonate with anyone who has grown up or lived in a small, tradition-bound town that is experiencing change. Embedded in an entertaining story is an examination of how we define our communities by who does not belong, and the miserable feeling of being excluded. In “Major Pettigrew” author Helen Simonson, a transplanted Brit, has suggested a wonderful response to this universal occurrence–she says, “I hope that perhaps such experiences are the grit that makes a pearl in the oyster.”  — Book review by Chris Curry, A Novel Experience owner

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