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Pride and prejudice is still a valid story line

  • Apr 14, 2010
  • by
Rating:
+5
Pettigrew's Last Stand
by Helen Simonson
368 pages
Random House, 2010

To explan the title of this review, Major Pettigrew is proud, and a lot of the people around him are prejudiced. This book because gave me a vague Jane Austen vibe-- not Austenish in the sense that the plot reminded me of her books, but the feel of it is very Jane-like. It's set mostly in a small English village, and it deals with marriage, family, race, class, manners, and relationships. Except for race, all those are to be found in Austen's work, too, but this time the pairing off happens between the eponymous gentleman, a widower in his late sixties, and a widow a decade younger who happens to be a shopkeeper.  In a ironic touch, she is of Pakistani family but was born in Cambridge, and he is English through-and-through but was born in Lahore.  Adding to the Austen feel is the formality still preferred in the village of Edgcombe St. Mary.  Almost no one calls Major Pettigrew anything but "Major," and we don't learn Mrs. Ali's first name until a good way through the book.

Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali know each other when the story starts, but a sad coincidence throws them together in a new way.  She appears at his door shortly after he has learned of the unexpected death of his younger brother and only sibling Bertie. Her kindness and sensitivity make the Major see her in a new light.  He finds her a kindred spirit in regards to so many things that they begin to spend time together. This doesn't sit well with the small-town gossips and the golf club members of Edgcombe St. Mary.  Indeed, Major Pettigrew is so concerned with what is proper, he finds it hard to ever speak of his feelings. His son Roger is too obsessed with his own career and his own love life to pay much attention to anyone else's problems. Roger's self-absorbed failings are obvious, but Simonson makes him at least a little bit sympathetic.  It's clear the Major was a very old-fashioned father.

As the story progresses we learn more about the Major's past, about Colonel Pettirgew, his stern, distant father who espoused the old idea of primogeniture right up until death was near and it was time to decide what to do with an historic matched pair of valuable shotguns. The Colonel's shotguns were split but the pair was left in an informal tontine to whichever son survived longest. Now that his brother Bertie is gone, the Major expects the Colonel's deathbed wish to prevail, but it appears it is not to be.

But while the Major obsesses about the shotguns, he also learns about Mrs. Ali's situation, about how her family wants her to cede her shop, her livelihood, to a nephew because that is what is expected of women in her culture.  Later it turns out that she does just that, but for a very specific reason. The more the Major sees of Mrs. Ali, the more he realizes how lonely his life has become and how much more alive he feels when he is with her.  He even thinks of her when he is invited to a shoot at the local manor, a formal slaughter of ducks that the major is proud and pleased to be invited to. This passage of the Major's thought processes during the shoot illustrates Simonson's prose strengths, blending humor, physical observations, and character development all into a few sentences:

He allowed himself to imagine striding into her shop at the end of the day, smelling of gunpowder and rain-misted leather, a magnificent rainbow-hued drake spilling from his game bag. It would be a primal offering of food from man to woman and a satisfyingly primitive declaration of intent. However, he mused, one could never be sure these days who would be offended by being handed a dead mallard bleeding from a breast full of tooth-breaking shot and sticky about the neck with dog saliva.
 
I laughed out loud when I read that.

Simonson, who was born in Britain but lives in the US now, has a wonderfully delicate touch. the story is told in the Major's point of view, in third person but so close it might as well be first person. We see Mrs. Ali only through his eyes, but it is a tribute to Simonson's skill that we feel we know her just as well, and feel for her situation. I look forward to more novels from this author, and more wonderful characters like Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali. 

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July 30, 2010
What a great review and I love that passage. You really captured the sweetness of this book. I wish the author would write a sequel so we could see what happens next with the Major and Mrs. Ali. And it would make a good movie.
 
April 14, 2010
no spoilers in this review!
 
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More Major Pettigrew's Last Stand: ... reviews
review by . April 14, 2011
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In the tradition of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, or the film Last Chance Harvey, Helen Simonson tells the story of Major (ret.) Ernest Pettigrew, a fine old English gentleman doing his best not to fade away since his wife died 6 years ago. He loves his home and village, and regrets the decline of old traditions. As the novel opens, he is struggling to come to terms with the death of his brother, and the local shop keeper, a Pakistani widow named Mrs. Ali, offers him some assistance and understanding. …
review by . February 13, 2011
This book has been on my wishlist for months, and I finally got a paperback copy as a Christmas gift, and then of course I was reluctant to start the book because I was afraid it woudn't live up to the build-up. Thankfully, my fears were unfounded as this gem of a book more than lived up to the hype.    This beautiful story about finding love a second time around amid the complications of grown children, family businesses, and busybody neighbors also explores themes of racism, …
review by . July 30, 2010
My new favorite book
At 68, Major Ernest Pettigrew is a respected leader in the tiny English village of Edgecombe St. Mary. He's an old-school gentleman, a loyal and honorable man among men, but also a lonely widower. His brother's death brings about a new friendship for the Major in the person of Mrs. Ali, the quiet and dignified Pakistani lady who runs the local shop. As they grow closer, however, they discover the shocking bigotry behind their neighbors' smiles.      I love this book. …
review by . July 27, 2010
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is an easy book to underestimate. On the surface it's a gentle love story between the hopelessly conventional aging widower Major Pettigrew and the only slightly less conventional Pakistani widow Jasmina Ali. Major Pettigrew gets to know Mrs. Ali after his brother dies, and he finds that this lady, who tends the village shop, is the one person thoughtful enough to care about his feelings. That Major Pettigrew should make such a friendship is surprising, most of all to …
review by . March 30, 2010
Major Ernest Pettigrew (ret), an old-fashioned, stiff-upper-lip kind of Englishman, with a wry, sometimes caustic wit, comes up against mortality when his younger brother, Bertie, dies suddenly of a heart attack. Dazed by the news, he answers the door in his dead wife's housecoat (it's housecleaning day) to the proprietor of the village store, Mrs. Jasmina Ali.    Half-faint with embarrassment, he allows himself to be restored with a cup of tea by Mrs. Ali, a widow of Pakistani …
review by . January 29, 2010
"Last Stand" is a wondrous novel- a debut by author Simonson written with extraordinary insight and with vivid crackling descriptions so apt you'll find yourself reading slowly so you won't miss any of them. Wry and witty, the book is frequently hilarious and I often laughed so hard the tears were running down my face. The ending of this love story will leave you with a feeling of contentment but most of all the book is a paean to the human spirit that will warm the shackles of your heart.    Th …
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Karen Wester Newton ()
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, March 2010: In her witty and wise debut novel, newcomer Helen Simonson introduces the unforgettable character of the widower Major Ernest Pettigrew.  The Major epitomizes the Englishman with the "stiff upper lip," who clings to traditional values and has tried (in vain) to pass these along to his yuppie son, Roger. The story centers around Pettigrew's fight to keep his greedy relatives (including his son) from selling a valuable family heirloom--a pair of hunting rifles that symbolizes much of what he stands for, or at least what he thinks he does. The embattled hero discovers an unexpected ally and source of consolation in his neighbor, the Pakistani shopkeeper Jasmina Ali. On the surface, Pettigrew and Ali's backgrounds and life experiences couldn't be more different, but they discover that they have the most important things in common. This wry, yet optimistic comedy of manners with a romantic twist will appeal to grown-up readers of both sexes. Kudos to Helen Simonson, who distinguishes herself withMajor Pettigrew's Last Standas a writer with the narrative range, stylistic chops, and poise of a veteran.--Lauren Nemroff
--This text refers to theHardcoveredition.
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Details

ISBN-10: 9780812981223
ISBN-13: 978-0812981223
Author: Helen Simonson
Genre: Literature & Fiction
Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
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