I was really happy to be asked to join a book club. And even better, I was thrilled to see the list of books the club had already decided on. Some were totally new to me, but many were already on my TBR. One of those was Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which wound up being the next book on the list. I have to admit, I thought it started slow – but in the end I found myself completely captivated by it.
We meet the widowed Major Pettigrew at a horrible moment: he has just learned that his younger brother has died unexpectedly. Mrs. Ali, owner of the local store, happens upon the Major in a horrible state. She comes to his aide, making him tea and giving him someone to talk with. And thus begins a most unlikely friendship: one human’s completely decent response to the distress of another.
As it turns out, the retired Major and Mrs. Ali have a lot in common: both have recently lost dear spouses, both honor their families, both have a sense of history and a love of books. But their friendship appears improbable because to most observers, even their dearest friends, what are most noticeable are their differences: the Major is from an old, aristocratic, English family, while Mrs. Ali is a shop keeping Pakistani Muslim.
With this premise, Helen Simonson could have written a very predictable “East Meets West” kind of story, but for the most part she didn’t. That is perhaps a function of the sensational cast of supporting characters that inhabit Edgecombe St. Mary, the increasingly suburban (and decreasingly idyllic) home to the Major’s small ancestral estate. Abdul Wahid, Mrs. Ali’s nephew, is an angry young man, trying to decide if his love or his faith is more important. Roger Pettigrew, the Major’s son, is a crass, overindulged, self-centered British Millennial who longs for wealth to match his social status. British-born Amina eschews her family’s traditional Pakistani values, but as tough as she is she still struggles as a single parent in a society that will never fully accept her or her illegitimate son, George. The Major and Mrs. Ali are also well drawn, wryly humorous and insightful, but it’s really the overall effect of the personalities converging on Edgecombe St. Mary, from the upper-crusty but highly taxed peers to the eco-terrorists next door, that set this book apart for me.
That said, I’m going to admit that the book was not entirely successful from my point of view. And that is because Simonson, an ex-pat Brit who apparently lives in the New York area, committed one of the current literary offenses that ticks me off most: employing the “stereotypical American” as symbol of all that is wrong with the world. (My little diatribe begins about here, so you can feel free to skip it if you’d like.)
Here’s the thing: Simonson’s own discussion points indicate she wanted to show that all British people are not the same. Fine. So why are all Americans the same in so many recent books that come out of the former British Empire? Note to writers – we are quite a diverse group. We put the “multi” in multicultural. We are not all hegemony-minded business majors with great teeth (okay, our teeth are usually pretty good), too much money and no manners. And we don’t all have a burning desire to buy up your country and titles. That American represents a literary trope at this point. If you can write with understanding about a misguided bunch of codgers who wouldn’t dream of allowing a Pakistani couple join their club (and to your credit, you did), I’d think you could steer your way clear to writing an interesting – and by that I don’t mean perfect, but at least imperfect in an interesting way – American. And while we’re at it, it doesn’t count to have one British person – in this case the Major’s son Roger – be just as awful as an American. I’m talking about relative levels of interest here, and not relative levels of evil. (End of diatribe; it’s now safe to go back to the review.)
For the most part this was a very successful novel. The more I got to know the characters, the more I enjoyed it. The ending is both exciting and unexpected. And it provided a great night of discussion for my book club. There was a great diversity of opinion about what Major Pettigrew’s “last stand” actually was – nearly everyone had a different take. So the book is highly recommended for readers of literary fiction and romance, diatribe notwithstanding.