Saturday, August 13, 2011

MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND by Helen Simonson

"This is the book I've been looking for," I said to my friend Carol at a book group last night. "I'm so tired of books where the characters are miserable at the beginning, think a great deal, and are equally miserable at the end. Not that I want sappy sweet books..."

"You want books that are redemptive," Carol said.

That's exactly right. Happy books featuring genuinely good people, like D.L. Smith's The Miracles of Santo Fico; gritty books whose protagonists take on evil and win, like Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch detective stories; or even deeply ambiguous books whose seriously flawed characters turn out to have a good side after all, like Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge. What I don't want to do is waste my time with any book that goes nowhere or, worse, leaves me depressed and anxious. If I want to feel suicidal, I can watch the news.

I loved Major Pettigrew's Last Stand.

The book is very redemptive, though if I told you exactly what I mean by that I'd give away the plot. It is also a charming romance. Characters fall in and out of love; marriage proposals are made, accepted, postponed, and turned down. The necessary complications arise because of misunderstandings (or downright nastiness) between races, nationalities, religions, generations, sexes, classes, and people with varying levels of pretentiousness. The love of money and possessions triggers plenty of havoc.

Fortunately, this is a comic novel, not grim realism. The author, a native of England who has lived in the U.S. for 20 years, enjoys poking fun at stuffy old Brits (aren't they almost extinct?) and brash Americans (thriving, alas).

While Major Pettigrew, 68, and especially the quietly indomitable Mrs. Ali, 58, are well-developed characters, many members of the supporting cast are hilarious caricatures - the vicar's dreadful wife, Daisy; the Major's narcissistic son, Roger; Mrs. Ali's scowling religious nephew, Abdul Wahid; the ecologically minded but fashion challenged neighbor, Alice;  Lord Dagenham, who brings bankers to the manor to shoot at farm-raised ducks... Well, all of Helen Simonson's characters, right down to walk-on parts like the rule-obsessed lady at the tea-and-cakes kiosk, are wryly amusing.

To be sure, the course of Major Pettigrew's romance does not run smooth. Potentially derailing subplots abound: an American real estate developer wants to turn Edgecombe St. Mary into a haven for displaced minor nobility. The Major and his sister-in-law disagree about who should inherit the deceased brother's valuable gun. A single mother confronts her child's father. The yearly club dance finds yet another way to showcase its planner's ignorance and bad taste. A love affair seems to die even before it gets properly started. Hey, this is a romance - we can hardly expect things to be easy.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is funny, it's heartwarming, it's even wise. And in the end, when the main characters get what's coming to them (for good or for ill), I'm betting most readers will chuckle and cheer and say to their friends, "Here's a book you've got to read."
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When Googling for a picture of the book jacket to include with this post, I discovered that Alexander McCall Smith reviewed this book in the New York Times (March 3, 2010). His review is excellent, but even if you don't feel like reading it right now, click on this link to see the illustration. 

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