Thursday, April 1, 2010

REVIEW: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson. Published 2010 by Random House. Literary Fiction.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is a simply delightful new novel set in contemporary rural England and starring the eponymous major, an elderly gentleman and widower living alone in a small village that is nonetheless a microcosm of changes occurring all over his country. A loosening of attitudes and a more casual approach to life have deteriorated traditional manners; immigration has brought new people to the village; changing economics are shuffling the social order as old moneyed families find their lifestyles faltering and new-money London types are moving in. Major Pettigrew fights a seemingly losing battle for courtesy, decency and the British way. And he's falling in love with Mrs. Ali, his Muslim, Pakistani-English shop-owner neighbor.

The book has many elements of a farce- a large cast of slightly absurd characters and some madcap, dysfunctional antics- but overall the tone of the book is bittersweet. At the center is the tender late-term love story between the Major and Mrs. Ali, two lonely and utterly compatible people who find sympathy and companionship with each other, while battling families and a society which would rather box them up and write them off. The major's son Roger is a petty overgrown teenager obsessed with status and money; Mrs. Ali's newly religious nephew has fathered an illegitimate child. He and the child's mother have issues of their own to work out while the rest of the family wants Mrs. Ali to surrender her shop and retire- which she does not want. And all this is played out among a varied cast of characters with a mess of assumptions, expectations and agendas.

I loved Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. Well-crafted and beautifully written, it's smarter than it is fluffy but still delivers its message with a spoonful of sugar. In the midst of some light comedy Simonson deals with some pretty heavy issues- racism, social upheaval, economic changes, religious and class tension, tradition and responsibility- but she does it in a way that is both pointed and surprisingly easy to swallow. She manages to make her points without being either heavy handed or didactic, and even her villains refuse to become caricatures as Simonson handles them with compassion. A love story with a brain as well as a heart, it's an instant classic and the kind of book you'll want to press into the hand of everyone you meet.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.