Friday, February 24, 2012

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand / by Helen Simonson

Major Ernest Pettigrew (ret.) would prefer not to participate too much in the modern world and its new methods of daily life. A staunch traditionalist, honor-bound by his sense of duty and stoic chivalry, he's not too fond of new inventions which have made things move faster and people on the whole, as he sees it, less agreeable. Cell phones he particularly abhors; the Internet, forget about it. There's also the institution of marriage which seems to be falling apart. His own son, Roger, himself apart of that wheeling-dealing world as a real estate broker, has a relationship with an American woman who sees marriage as an outdated concept, perceiving cohabitation as the new norm. Now that his brother Bertie has died, the Major sees little hope for a confirmation of the old life and its familiar ways which at least strived towards a more honorable code of conduct. By way of his daily routine, Major Pettigrew forms a friendship with the widowed owner of his local tea shop, Mrs. Ali, a woman of Pakistani descent who shares his love of literature and seems to have an especially discerning air about her which the Major finds charming. The woman certainly shows more class than any of the women in the Major's own circle, namely his newly widowed sister-in-law who now wants to sell off portions of the family estate and the women involved in his local civic club who shamelessly parade around their ignorant ideas and notions about other cultures. It's not long before the Major and Mrs. Ali, while not would either would call a couple, are seen together in public. Now it's the Major's family and extended set of peers who take notice of his 'new' ways, even if the Major himself sees nothing new about it, only two people, two Britons--Mrs. Ali was born in Cambridge and has never been outside of England--who still find comfort in the 'old' ways of doing things.

It isn't hard to see why this book was absolutely devoured by readers upon its publication. It's the type of story that restores faith in humanity and inspires hope for the future, neither too delicate in approach nor too overblown on sentiment. Major Pettigrew shares many of the same characteristics as classic figures like Dickens' Mr. Pickwick, Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe, even Mr. Darcy or George Knightley. He's a noble-born, honest man who's kind and considerate with few vices other than occasional stubbornness toward change, not altogether a bad thing anyway when it comes to who he has to deal with. He's obligated by his principles to speak the truth no matter what, to uphold propriety and ensure that justice is had for all. And while you couldn't say he's an altogether affectionate man, he's certainly knows when to offer tenderness and when to withhold judgement. Simonson unfolds the book in a brilliantly patient manner, leading the reader into what initially may be misconstrued as a cozy mystery type of story and then building things into a wonderfully satisfying work of both substance and characterization. (FIC SIMONSON)

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