By Helen Simonson
Major Ernest Pettigrew, a retired British army officer, is distraught at learning about the death of his brother, Bertie. As he answers his door in his Edgecombe home wearing a flowery, red housecoat, he is faced with an elegant and gracious foreign looking woman who will eventually become the love of his life.
The early morning visitor is Mrs. Ali who manages a local village convenience store where the Major has been buying his tea specially blended by this sweet woman. The 68 year old widower has his eyes opened by his meeting with this woman. He now begins viewing his village, its residents and even his son, Roger, in a different way.
The story unfolds like petals of a flower opening to the morning sunrise displaying the social cultural layers which lock the village residents and the Major’s son into an ossified and unchanging demographic caste system. As the story develops, the Major begins to see that the villagers are permanently layered into clearly defined social stratifications, as much as are the family and friends of Mrs. Ali who is of Indian or Pakistani ancestry though she was born, raised and educated in England.
Bigotry weaves its way throughout the entire story. The reader is drawn into reviewing stereotypical views of the various cultures as depicted by the characters in the story. The British — self-absorbed snobs, want to perpetuate their uppity, social stratified way of life that they believe is inherently superior to any other. The Americans — arrogant, vulgar self-centred bombasts, see their money as the irresistible force that will get them whatever they want. The Indians and Pakistanis — prisoners of a their own created mind set, see themselves as social inferiors to other cultures and doomed to be so forever.
Helen Simonson, the author of this romantically charming story, was born in East Sussex but moved to the United States after marriage. Her descriptively detailed writing style reveals a perceptive and analytical eye in looking at her native land. The novel’s vignettes are universally appealing and provide an atmosphere of humorous authenticity. She warmly describes how Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali, who are both recently widowed, share a kindred spirit in their love for literature and Kipling especially. Major Pettigrew’s son, Roger, is first portrayed as a social climber who wants to occupy the upper crust of the village society. His girlfriend, a brash American initially jars on the Major’s crystallized rural English attitudes but eventually endears herself to him because of her genuineness.
A pair of valuable E. J. Churchill premiere shotguns, owned by the Major and his brother, are the binding thread throughout the book. The Major hopes to become the sole proprietor of these treasured pieces as part of his inheritance from Bertie’s estate. The guns supposedly were a gift to the Major’s father for an heroic act of saving the wife of an Indian maharajah. This historical tidbit leads to a gala holiday fest with an Indian theme staged by the scatterbrained wives club of the village. Though the festivity leads to disaster, there are some exciting and unexpected turns, and eventually the story’s romantically compatible but socially exclusive couple finally wend their way to marital union.
Ms. Simonson’s first novel hits the mark in many places. The characters are engaging, entertaining and particularly well drawn; the described incidents and events give the story an accurate and authentic feel throughout; the novel pushes the reader into a reassessment of social philosophies and cultural perspectives and it does so with sensitivity and empathy. “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” is one of honour on high ground.
This type of romance novel is not my regular read. I prefer espionage and crime thrillers as written by authors such as Baldacci, Clancy and Grisham or even sci-medical ones such as those authored by Robin Cook or Michael Connelly. Yet, grudgingly I will admit that Simonson grabbed my attention at the very start of the book and held it almost all the way through, the only lapse during the festival narrative where I found my attention lagged a little.
Still I think that Simonson does a great job of describing England of a generation or two ago. She is not regressing to the middle ages or even the 19th century England but to the mid 20th, a time I believe, when the British still saw themselves as the superior power in the world. The United States had not yet won WWII thus usurping that position of supremacy. Brits of that time period are portrayed as being superior to any other culture, and maybe it was so. Most movies of that time portrayed them that way and for those old enough to know British people who were of that age, perhaps the British actually did act that way. Nevertheless, Simonson captures a mood where she places the reader into a time where the British saw themselves as I have described.
Simonson’s novel is a cultural mosaic depicting British, American and Indo-Pakistani cultures very stereotypically. The British are the tea sipping upper crust of society which was the way they possibly saw themselves at that time. The Americans are portrayed as brash, crass, bombastic capitalists, an arguably valid portrayal but not in Americans’ eyes. The capitalist dominance of the United States may have implied that manifest destiny entitled position of superiority and arrogance. The Indian-Pakistani stereotype may be furthest from the mark but in my limited experience, I do not believe it to be so. In Simonson’s novel, this national group acts as if it occupies a lower social-cultural rung than any other people. Perhaps this attitude originates from a century of colonial dominance by the British, thus indoctrinating future generations into thinking they are subservient to all whites and to their British masters especially. Justified or not, today’s younger generation is not likely to accept Simonson cultural mosaic as it is painted. They are more egalitarian in their attitude and thus, for them, her novel swims upstream culturally.
READABILITY: very readable
ENJOYABILITY: moderately enjoyable
RECOMMEND: yes to those who like romance stories