Simonson, Helen. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. New York: Random House, 2010.
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I first discovered this book one day when I was reshelving at the library. I have to admit that the only reason I was drawn to it was the name “Pettigrew,” due to the fact that I so love both the book and the movie Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. It seems silly to assume that all books with the name “Pettigrew” in the title will be ones I love, but based on this whopping sample size of two, I can (I mean, how many books can there possibly be with the name “Pettigrew” in the title?).
Normally, I’m one to pooh-pooh any books with endorsements that compare them to Jane Austen. There was, and always will be, only one Jane Austen. However, I must give credit where credit is due and admit that this is one of the few “contemporary Jane Austens” I’ve read that actually deserves the comparison — or, at least, that makes sense to me. I can completely understand why such a comparison might be made, because Simonson has written a fine comedy of manners that is also a scathing commentary on English village life. And she’s done so in the gentle, subtle way that readers of Austen have come to recognize. Another author Simonson brings to mind is Barbara Pym — not as well known as Austen but another favorite of mine.
This is the story of Major Pettigrew, a retired English gentleman in every sense of the word, who lives in a 21st-century village. He has been a widower for a number of years, and when we first meet him, he is dealing with the death of his only brother. He is now the only living member of his respectable clan, who was headed up by his father who had been stationed in India. His life turns upside down when he finds himself, much to his amazement, falling in love with a Pakistani shop keeper in town — a woman with a sharp intelligence and a mind of her own.
Along the way, we meet all the colorful characters we expect to meet in an English village: the other gentlemen, the gentlewomen, the bigots, the gossips, the protestors, an obnoxious visiting American (or two. What’s an English village without one of those?), those who would destroy the village for a little cash, and those who would lay down their lives to preserve it. All those who know such tales know that they are England on a micro scale. We know that we can look at one village, sketched by a capable pen, and find ourselves looking upon much of the entire country.
What a treat Simonson has given us in this fresh, 21st-century update of a tale that’s been told many times. She set herself a nearly impossible task and executed it beautifully. I tip my bowler to her and hope that she’ll be writing many, many more novels.