Helen Simonson’s first novel came to me by way of Amazon recommendations, and maybe it’s time for me to at least think about revising my innate skepticism of its recommendation process. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is an improbable love story peppered with quirky but wholly believable characters who charm the pants off you, as well as an all too familiar reminder of how small town life can be, and a timely theme of cultural diversity and tolerance delivered with heavy doses of humor and sensitivity.
Having grown up in a small town where everyone knew one another’s business, I was transported back to both the comforts and confines of small town life. Until the day Major Pettigrew receives very sad news and Mrs. Ali happens to be on his doorstep just in time to offer him tea and sympathy, the very proper British widower and the pretty Pakistani widow live in the same small town, but inhabit very different worlds. This personal encounter leaves them viewing each other in a new light, but societal pressures don’t loosen their hold even on the independent and middle-aged. Almost before Major Pettigrew’s wife was in the ground, the town biddies had picked the new bachelor’s mate, and it wasn’t a shopkeeper with foreign ways. Mrs. Ali’s world is no less opinionated, with her family pressuring her retire, turn over her business to them, and return to their repressive bosom like a good Muslim woman. The resultant tug of war is one that takes place every day of the week no matter who we are, and it resonates strongly. Between what their worlds expect, the societal strictures they’ve internalized, and what they truly desire is a very relatable story told with poignancy and not a little humor.
One would think tackling the cultural and religious issues surrounding such a romance would drag the story into heaviness, but Ms. Simonson’s humor keeps the story afloat and bobbing like a buoy. The issues of British colonialism, racism, religious intolerance, and terrorism are hot button topics that don’t lend themselves easily to comedy. Still, Simonson has found just the right combination of razor sharp wit and respectful sensitivity to make the reader think and reflect, but all the while thoroughly enjoy the ride. Major Pettigrew’s waffling, sometimes cowardish ways are at once maddening and understandable. His wrestling with his own prejudices and fears, as well as the oddball townsfolk’s pressures, make for comical yet all too true situations.
This is a sweet read with a big message gently delivered, and I thoroughly enjoyed every page.