Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

Do you think there is a modern day heir to Jane Austen? It's an idea I've seen thrown around a little bit, but most often it seems to be used as blurby praise on jackets of chick-lit novels that directly borrow Austen's plots. Although there's nothing wrong with those books (I've certainly enjoyed some of them myself), I think the true heir to Austen's throne--as much as there can ever be one--would be someone who captures something of the spirit of Austen's works but takes it in a new, original direction. Maybe Nora Ephron deserved the title, with her stories about people surmounting romantic inconveniences and misunderstandings that also said a lot about the time and society she was writing for. Another candidate I might put forward is Helen Simonson, for her debut novel Major Pettigrew's Last Stand.

The title character of Ernest Pettigrew is a retired Army major nearing his seventies. A widower, he lives in a quintessential English village. The Major is a true English gentleman, active and respected in his town, with high standards of politeness and decency that result in frequently repressed feelings of frustration at what he views to be the crass conduct of his friends, his twenty-something son, and his future American daughter-in-law. As the novel opens, the Major is shaken by the news of the sudden death of his younger brother. A chance encounter during the height of the Major's shock throws him together with Mrs. Ali, the Pakistani proprietor of the local village convenience store. The comfort she offers him causes the Major to view Mrs. Ali in a new light. A subdued romance develops between them, which of course brings with it a clash of cultures involving Mrs. Ali's disapproving relatives and Major Pettigrew's disbelieving friends.

The novel is Austen-like in its focus on manners, its distinctive cast of characters inhabiting a close-knit world, and its nearly bungled romantic entanglements. Simonson does a good job of modernizing these elements by focusing them around a kind of romance that we don't often read about--one between two older people. The obstacles the Major faces as he tries to find the right way to court Mrs. Ali are fun to read about, but can also be seen as a statement about where old fashioned values fit into modern culture. In this way, Simonson uses her characters to explore societal issues, but with a very light, unobtrusive touch. The climactic scene at the end of the book veers further into action movie territory than seems necessary, but aside from that, this is a charming and delightful read.


  1. I loved Major Pettigrew's Last Stand! I didn't know if younger readers would appreciate it as much as I did, with the main characters being older. I thought it really captured the theme of being old in years and body, but young in mind and spirit; as well as the older person watching the world change and not being sure that's a good thing, but coping with it anyway... The characters were so real: changing their minds, doubting their choices, messing up... Such a warm and caring book... Glad to hear your take on it!

  2. I haven't read this, although this post now gave me a taste for it. I know what you mean about so many novels 'borrowing' Austen's plots, but rarely equalling her style and wit.



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