Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonsen

Friday, January 07, 2011

I heard of this book via an email from Amazon. I got a sample for my Kindle and immediately fell in love with the story, but it wasn't until I received a gift card that I was able to finally get my hands on this treasure.

This book is a serious gem. It is obvious to me why it is being touted as one of the best books of 2010. The story is about Major Pettigrew, a widower with an obnoxious son and one half of a highly valuable set of Churchill guns, left to him by his father. When Bertie, Major Pettigrew's brother and possessor of the other half of the set of guns, passes away, Major Pettigrew is stumbled upon by Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the local grocery store owner and a widow. In an effort to help the grieving Major Pettigrew, Mrs. Ali drives him to the funeral and captures his heart. However, despite their common interests and mutual understanding, differences in race and social status threaten their infant relationship. Will they be able to overcome the prejudices of their community?

There are so many things I love about this book, I hardly know where to begin, but since the cover is the first thing anyone sees, I'll start with that. Two coats and two hats hang together on a coatrack in such a way that they look like two people embracing. I think this is a very good symbol for the book. Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali's interactions and expressions are very subtle and understated. They come together emotionally long before they even approach coming together physically by spending afternoons talking about Kipling and drinking tea.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand has been compared to Jane Austen, and I can see the likeness. Simonsen uses wry comments thick with subtle meanings to deliver the messages of the story. The difference is that while delivering this slightly sarcastic lines, Simonsen is making fun of modern society. This "comedy of manners" was more enjoyable to me than a Jane Austen novel because I was in on the joke. She did make several disparaging comments about Americans, but as several of them were pretty apt descriptions, they just made me laugh instead of offending me. My favorite - "Americans seemed to enjoy the sport of publicly humiliating one another." (p 23)

The characters were just as charming as the writing style. I found myself wanting to hug Major Pettigrew throughout the book. His frustration with aging, his still piercing grief for his wife, and his blossoming attraction for Mrs. Ali combined seemingly contradictory elements into a very whole, realistic and sympathetic character. He was imperfect and confused, but completely ready to follow his heart. And it is easy to see why it points to Mrs. Ali. Despite her age, she is described as beautiful and exuberant - "She had opened her window slightly and the rush of air blew ripples in her rose silk headscarf and tossed stray black locks of hair across her face." She is educated and literary, able to speak with the Major about their love of country and their grief for their spouses.

The lesser characters are also fully fleshed out with personalities, idiosyncrasies, and redeeming qualities, even in the most obnoxious. Yes, the Major's son Roger takes advantage of him, dropping by uninvited, asking the Major to change his plans, making serious relationship steps in text messages. However, he does occasionally listen to the Major, making some small steps into becoming a less annoying person. Mrs. Ali's fanatically religious nephew, while grumpy and judgmental, does learn to appreciate the Major instead of seeing him as an infidel and possible corrupter of his aunt's virtue.

The plot, while very quiet at the beginning, steadily gains speed to a surprising climax at the end. The barriers between Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali multiply and threaten their relationship throughout the book, not just in verbal insinuations but in a very dangerous way. At the beginning, when things are slower, the beautiful writing and fresh characters kept my interest, but by the ending, the unfolding events of the plot would have interested me even if they writing was of a lower caliber.

I would recommend this book to anyone. While it is a love story, there is much more to the book than romance. The characters deal with the changes that come with age, losing beloved relatives (and dealing with less-beloved relatives), overcoming social and racial ignorance, changing traditions, relationships between parents and children... The list goes on. Simonsen has painted human nature in a beautiful setting and framed it with an exciting, touching story. Read it!!

Accessibility/readability - I definitely had to look up a few words, but the book was not too weighty or difficult to read. The story flowed. And who doesn't love improving their vocabulary?
Literary merit/Aesthetics - 5.
Characters - 5
Plot - 5
Personal response - 5
Overall - 5


  1. I read this a few months ago and really enjoyed it. The cover art is so elegant and warm. I like that you noted that the characters had flaws; however, I had a hard time believing Major Pettigrew's character actually falling in love with Mrs. Ali. He goes from being this incredibly conservative individual that once had a very liberal and outspoken wife. It seems improbable that he would intitate a relationship with a woman in her position in this society when he holds so many prejudices. It seems these women (his deceased wife and Mrs. Ali) exist to keep him open-minded and unwound. Again, I understand that Simonson did address character faults; I just found his a bit shifty at times. I loved the social commentary and felt it was spot on. The Major is just short of laughing at himself and those around him on so many occassions. I really enjoyed the work, as I feel Simonson really exhibited this small town's mechanics and relationships with perfect brevity. I didn't want to put the novel down, and was cheering for the union while they raced around the English countryside. Loved your review!

  2. I so want to read this book - roll on payday so I can buy myself a copy!

  3. @Beth - thank you for sharing your insights, I really enjoyed reading your comment. I definitely agree with you that Major P. shouldn't have fallen for Mrs. Ali - it seemed like an unlikely pairing, but in a way I think that is the nature of love - sometimes you are just hit by the bug and can't resist it. I liked how he fell in almost in spite of himself.

    @Sam - You won't regret it!


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