Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

By Helen Simonson
Random House. 358 pp. $25 (Kindle edition $9.99)

Last Saturday, I browsed through the Indie Next list and decided to download Helen Simonson’s first novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Boy, am I glad I did. This completely charming book is about breaking down boundaries, maintaining manners, minding multicultural sensitivities, and bridging generation gaps. But it is mostly about falling in love.

Major Ernest Pettigrew, a retired British army officer, is a man of impeccable manners who has lived alone in the small village of Edgecombe St. Mary since his wife died six years earlier. At sixty-eight, Major, as everyone in the village knows him, is an attractive target for various spinsters and widows, He has, in fact, already briefly entertained and then abandoned the notion of becoming a bit friendlier with one acquaintance named Grace. However, after he learns about the unexpected death of his brother, he distractedly answers the doorbell to find the local Pakistani shopkeeper, a widow named Mrs. Ali, on his doorstep asking to collect the fee for his newspaper. In his muddled and somewhat disoriented state, he uncharacteristically blurts out the news of his loss to Mrs. Ali who shepherds him back into his living room, makes him some tea and starts them down the road toward a romance neither thought they would ever find again.

Major Pettigrew is a thoroughly engaging character who I fully expect to see on BBC TV or on the big screen sooner or later. A perfect gentleman who values politeness and good manners above all else, Major, to his surprise and his own consternation, is also a sarcastic wit who is not above delivering a well-placed and well-deserved verbal jab to anyone that disappoints or annoys him —and that turns out to be just about everyone, including his son who shunned the army to become a grasping, shallow London financier.

Born and raised in Cambridge to a professor of Pakistani descent, Mrs. Ali is also thoroughly likeable. Smart, well-read and, of course, beautiful, she tries to tread the delicate line between respecting her late husband’s family, honoring her Muslim faith, trying to do right by her nephew and his new-found son, and her desire to be accepted by local villagers. The budding relationship between Major and Mrs. Ali, one that is nurtured by a love of Keats, a stubborn independence, and shared drives into town, is complicated by a planned real estate development, the love lives of the younger generation and the prejudices of both the local English gentry and Mrs. Ali’s Pakistani relatives. All the subplots are woven together in one outrageous scene at the “Mughal Empire”-themed annual country club dance at which Major shocks the local luminaries by inviting Mrs. Ali as his date. While the members of the club parade around in rented saris, Pith helmets and colonial British uniforms, much of the local Pakistanis are serving as kitchen help and waiters. It’s inevitable that the evening end badly.

The evening does ends badly, very badly, and Mrs. Ali leaves town. Despondent and disgusted with himself, Major relies on the solid, dependable Grace who, truly full of grace and intelligence, gently encourages Major to follow his heart.

Ms. Simonson has written a witty book that made me laugh and cry. I recommend it for everyone who enjoys a bit of British wit with their romance.


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