Courage and humor make a man

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand - Helen Simonson

This was a good book, a gentle literary fiction. The protagonist, Major Pettigrew, is a retired army major, living in a small English village, in the house built by his ancestors. Widowed several years ago, he lives quietly, in peace with his neighbors, until his younger brother dies in the beginning of the novel.

The funeral was set for Tuesday.

"It seemed good for most people,” Marjorie said on her second call. “Jemima has her evening class on Mondays and Wednesdays, and I have a bridge tournament on Thursday night.”

Shocked out of his complacency, the Major suddenly wakes up to the pettiness of his relatives and neighbors, the callousness of his son Roger, and his own loneliness. He falls in love with Jasmina Ali, a widowed owner of the local shop, and she returns his interest. She is of a similar age, with no children of her own, so there are no legal or moral impediments to their budding romance, but there is a problem: Mrs. Ali is Pakistani.

Born and raised in England by an academic father, she is much better educated than both her arrogant British neighbors and her own conservative Muslim family. She speaks several languages, reads widely, and could discuss literary masterpieces with the Major. They both like reading.

Drawn to each other despite their ingrained differences, could these two aging book-lovers from such controversial backgrounds find happiness in rural England? Every neighbor looks at their courting with disdain. Even they themselves start with doubts.

That was the trouble with these immigrants, he [the Major] mused. They pretended to be English. Some of them were even born here. But under the surface were all those barbaric notions and allegiances to foreign customs.

Understanding and acceptance grow slowly between the heroes, as they tentatively share the facts of their lives and their wicked sense of humor. Here they are discussing the Major’s impressive book collection:

“My son thinks I should get rid of most of them,” the Major said. “He thinks I need a wall free for an entertainment centre and a large TV.”

Roger had, on more than one occasion, suggested that he pare down his collection of books, in order to modernize the room, and had offered to buy him a room-sized television so that he “would have something to do in the evenings.”

“I’m considering running away to a quiet cottage in a secret location,” said the Major, “and sending him news of my well-being by postcards forwarded on via Australia.”

She laughed. “Perhaps I may join you?”

I’m somewhat of the Major’s generation and I couldn’t help but cheer for him and his beloved. I wanted them to find happiness. I wanted them to be brave enough to overcome the opposition of everyone around them.

The novel follows the small events in the village life: a Christmas dance, an afternoon tea, an outing at the seashore. They might seem inconsequential to many a reader, used to car chases and murders on the pages, but so many tangled emotions are packed into this deceptively low-key narrative. In the suffocating atmosphere of an enclosed community, with its lasting grudges, frequent ignorance, and all-encompassing conformity, Mrs. Ali is like a breeze of fresh air for the Major. He tumbles in love with her almost against his will. He never wanted to be a rebel, but he has always been honest with himself and everyone else. An essential Brit, a bit stiff but utterly decent, he is not going to bow to the village’s hypocritical dictates or to his own occasional cowardice.

As the two would-be lovers dance around each other, you see with amusement that some things don’t change with age or experience. He is still as shy as he was when he was young, afraid to advance his timid wooing prematurely, unwilling to incite ridicule. She is always the one who takes the initiative, makes the first step, issues an invitation, making him delirious with happiness. But in the end, he is the one who makes the last stand, and his deep courage shines.  

The writing is masterful and often funny in a dry, underrated way. You don’t laugh uproariously but you chuckle at the hero’s witty commentary on modern life:  

“People are always complaining about the loosening of moral standards,” the Major went on. “But my wife always insisted that prior generations were just as lax—they were merely more furtive.”

Many subplot lines weave around the main plot, enriching the story and introducing secondary characters with their own sets of troubles. The author doesn’t shy away from touchy topics. Islam and its clashes with modern morality, and how tragedy springs out of it. The narrow-mindedness and greed of the average Joe, both male and female. The soul-eating ambitions of the younger generation. Immigrants (even in the second or third generation) vs. locals. The author doesn’t dispense judgment; she strives for understanding.

The only fault of this book might be its slow, rambling development. Or maybe it’s not a fault but a feature. You can’t gobble this novel up like a fantasy adventure or a thrilling mystery. You have to absorb every line, pay attention to every nuance in dialog, luxuriate in the beauty of its lyrical descriptions.

In a dark holly bush a robin was tweedling a solo to the watercolor hills.

Recommended for a discerning reader.