My rating: 5 of 5 stars
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. Mrs. Ali was born in England, but latent racism still colors her relationships in town. She and the Major discover that they share many interests, and when he finds himself very attracted to her, he’s not certain at all that he should pursue anything more than friendship, although he himself has no problems with her origins. Major Pettigrew’s shallow son is a more “modern” Brit, and the attitudes and lifestyles of father and son create intergenerational friction. Mrs. Ali’s nephew, who is to inherit the shop when she decides to step down, could not be more faithful to traditional Muslim customs and mores.
What develops is a humorous yet dignified love story, sincere and full of heart, and peppered liberally with beautifully drawn characters. There are the threadbare local lord, who leases most of his stately home to a school, and the vapid society matrons who organize the annual themed and costumed dance at the golf club. Then there are Mrs. Ali’s fundamentalist relatives, the Major’s abrasive sister in law, and two brash Americans. For the Major, “two Americans in as many weeks” was something “approaching a nasty epidemic.” The action encompasses such hot-button issues as duck hunting, the British Empire, and, of course, race relations. The upshot is that the Major finds himself shaken out of his placid routines and patterns of thinking, to face the unpleasant fact that life in Edgecombe St. Mary is not always lived on the moral high ground, in spite of its idyllic setting.
With her sharp, dry wit, Author Simonson, is as adept at writing social satire as she is at romance. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (which he makes at the club dance) is fresh, polished, endearing, and very entertaining. Let’s hope she’ll be publishing again, and soon.