Today’s book is Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Having read way too many thick tomes in the last few weeks I decided that I needed something lighter and with a happy ending, and I was delighted to find that in Simonson’s book. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a delightful British comedy of manners that realistically depicts love between two mature adults and all of the difficulties of old age (including petulant adult children, the death of one’s peers, etc.)

Major Pettigrew is a retired British army officer who comes from a long line of officers who served the Empire (back when there was an Empire.) He is a man of fastidious good manners, taste, and who has a penchant for dry one-liners. He is rooted in tradition and propriety, and the world around him often offends him with its lack of these essential qualities. The story gets started with the death of the Major’s brother, which in a turn of events, leads to his friendship with the widowed neighborhood Pakistani shopkeeper, Mrs. Ali. The Major, a widower himself, takes to Mrs. Ali immediately, as he find her a woman of incredible taste who shares his love of books and a friendship (and possibly more) begins to take form.

The Major, however, has an unfortunately self-centered adult son, while Mrs. Ali shares her shop with her quiet, more religiously-minded nephew. This is all set in a small British town, which quickly begins to notice the affection between the old Major and Mrs. Ali, and hilarity (and some sadness) ensues.

Both extended  families (of Mrs. Ali and the Major) are portrayed with just enough comedy and human frailty to make them seem very real. The gossipy nature of the town and the townspeople is also authentically portrayed.  Simonson’s humor rounds out the Major’s dry, curmudgeonly nature perfectly. As a main character he is loveable in that crusty old man sort of way, but what is also amazing is how deftly the author portrays love between two mature characters.

Mrs. Ali and the Major are not young people who can just abandon convention and the expectations of their families to the wind. They come from different cultures, and Simonson deftly portrays the British uneasiness about the Southeast Asian immigrants in their midst. Yet the book comes across as not political, but honest in its portrayal, and throughout it all you cannot help rooting for the Major– a man who loves his country, his tea, and his right to shoot the ducks on the neighboring Lord’s manor– but a man who is good and honorable, and is able to see beyond the surface issues that the town (and his son) set their tongues wagging about.

Twists and turns happen. Hearts are broken, and a favored antique gun (gifted by a Maharaja no less) meets an untimely end, but the book has a happy ending. As sweet as it is, it is not conventional or saccharine. Instead it is honest, and very, very funny and wise.  In Simonson’s world, true love is not for the young, but for the old, who have finally sorted things out. This little passage between the Major and Mrs. Ali’s nephew Abdul Wahid pretty much sums it up.

“You are a wise man, Major, and I will consider your advice with great care and humility.” He finished his tea and rose from the table to go to his room. “But I must ask you, do you really know what it means to be in love with an unsuitable woman?”

“My dear boy,” said the Major. “Is there really any other kind?”

A sage observation from the Major. Love is funny that way– how it often comes from nowhere and hits you between the eyes and wrecks havoc on a life that you thought you had well-planned out. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a book of gentle humor, wisdom and love. I throughly enjoyed it.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

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