Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Love can happen in the unlikeliest of places. Even when you’re “of mature years”. And particularly “even” in an unlikely pair: Major Pettigrew, retired from military service, widowed, Englishman born in Lahore falls in love with Mrs. Ali, the widow of the village shopkeeper, of Pakistani descent but born outside Cambridge and never having gone farther abroad than the Isle of Wight, and she with him, much to the shock of their neighbors and family.

Major Pettigrew’s True Love shows up on his doorstep with a package shortly after he’s been notified of his younger brother’s unexpected death. Stunned, Pettigrew has spent an uncertain amount of time staring out the window, trying to absorb and assimilate this information, when Mrs. Ali arrives. She takes one look at him and sits him down for (what else?) a nice cup of tea. The brother’s death and the settling his estate proves to be the secondary Significant Subplot in the novel; money is not the contention it might be in other families, but there is a pair of guns which the brothers’ father split between the two children upon his death, The brother omitted to mention the disposition of his gun in his will, and the Major believes he ought to have gotten it from his brother. The relationship between the Major and Mrs. Ali is, however, the pivot of the book.

Revived, they begin a tentative friendship over tea and Kipling, having discovered a common love of literature which their families Cannot. Understand. At. All. Mrs. Ali’s nephew, now running the shop, thinks she should get rid of all her books so they could use the space for storage. Major Pettigrew’s son thinks he should get rid of all his books and use the space for a fancy sound system and flat-screen television. The pair’s shared outrage (in a subdued English sort of way) at their younger relatives’ missing the point of this love in maturity brings the two closer together. The relationship deepens–readers will predict the end of the novel long before the two main characters realize they’ve even become friends–but as with all novels, there are barriers in their way.

Neither Major Pettigrew’s very English neighbors or Mrs. Ali’s traditional Pakistani relatives can understand even the mere friendship between the two, as indeed the Major cannot at first. It is not until the village’s annual costume party at the local golf club, an ill-thought out “India” themed banquet with amateur theatricals with Empire overtones sufficient to sink a battleship, that the Major realizes that she is the woman for him just as she realizes the unbreachability of the gulf between her culture and theirs.

She abandons the village for her family. He doggedly tracks her down and manages to reassure the large and protective family of Mrs. Ali’s large and protective brother to allow the two just a moment of privacy alone together, during which instant, they decide to run away together to the cottage of Major Pettigrew’s commanding officer, now admitted to a nursing home as the result of his Alzheimer’s. Things progress about as the readers have known they would for the past hundred pages. With a brief sidetracking to talk Mrs. Ali’s nephew off a windy cliff top and her great-aunt out of a knitting needle so that the nephew can return to marry the mother of his child, Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali return home to marry one another.

There are a few plot holes. I didn’t much care for the clifftop negotiation scene, feeling it was somewhat overly dramatic and therefore out of place in what was a stereotypically low-key stiff-upper-lip sort of bucolic village romance. I’d rather Simonson had made the book’s denouement the scene in the C.O.’s cottage and allowed them to return straight home to make the engagement known to their families. The subtlety of the two falling in love contrasts poorly with the stereotyped English and American characters (and there are a lot of both); it’s as if Simonson was trying to decide between a low-key modern romance and a sendup of all the “sun never sets on the British Empire” style comedies written a couple of generations ago.

If you don’t know your mind when you’re in your sixties, who does? None of the messy angst of the young here, Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali fall in love through a slow process of getting to know one another, finding common ground, courtesy and afternoon tea. For readers who like this kind of romance, I do heartily recommend this book!

Kirkus Reviews
New York Times
New York Times, #2


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