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• Saturday, December 12th, 2015

Helen Simonson was born in Slough, Berkshire in 1964 and spent her teenage years in a small village near Rye in East Sussex, England. She graduated from the London School of Economics where she met her future American husband. She worked as a travel advertising executive and completed a masters degree in creative writing from Stony Brook Southampton, New York.

She has lived in the Washington D.C. Area and Brooklyn, New York, for over twenty years with her husband and two sons.

Simonson’s first novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, published in 2010, became a New York Times bestseller and was translated and published in several countries. Her second novel, The Summer Before The War, will be published in 2016.

Edgecombe St Mary is a small village in the English countryside in East Sussex where the two main characters live. Major Ernest Pettigrew, the sixty-eight year old widower, who lost his wife six years earlier, leads a peaceful life in his rural rose-covered cottage called Rose Lodge with a beautiful climbing clematis, the envy of his neighbours. And the good-looking Pakistani widow, ten years his junior, Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the village shopkeeper who runs the business with her nephew, Abdul Wahid. Jasmina was born in Cambridge and has been bred by her learned, Anglophile father.

The story starts with the Major still in a daze after the shock following a phone call at dawn from his sister-in-law, announcing his younger brother Bertie’s death from a massive heart attack. Soon after, he answers the door-bell to find Mrs Ali who has come for the newspaper money because the paper-boy is sick. Still feeling the loss of his brother deeply, the major’s knees give way and he is about to faint but Mrs Ali props him up, takes him indoors and sits him down before fetching some water and making him tea.

Major Pettigrew is a conservative, sardonic, well-mannered gentleman who likes to live by his principles. He was born in Lahore and lived in colonial India as a child and is now a retired British Army officer who lives alone. He was happily married to his wife, Nancy, and late in life they had their only son, Roger, who was spoilt by his mother to his father’s discontent. Roger, now in his thirties, works in finance and lives in London. Throughout the novel, the author underlines the major’s disapproval of his insufferably brash son’s lack of respect, tact and bad behaviour.

There is a great cultural divide between the major and his son. The major likes to read classical English authors like Joseph Kipling, John Keats and William Wordsworth. He is a pragmatic person, values traditions, correctness and righteousness. Unlike his father, Roger is an uncultured, manipulative, superficial person, ruthlessly self-seeking, a social-climber who is always attracted to novelties and fashion in all domains. He wants his father to get rid of his beloved books in order to make room for an up-to-date wide-screen television.

The major is sentimental about what he considers his heritage, the valuable pair of heirloom antique guns which were given to his father by a maharajah as a reward for an act of bravery for saving the maharajah’s latest and youngest wife from a train full of murdering thugs. The major’s father, on his death bed, divided the prized Churchill guns between his two sons on the understanding that the two guns were to be reunited when one of the sons died. When Bertie passes away, the major is faced with the greed of his sister-in-law, Marjorie, his niece, Jemima, and his son Roger all wanting to sell the pair of guns and enjoy the money regardless of what the major feels or thinks.

Solid friendship between the major and Mrs Ali flourishes through sharing the same things, like the loss of their respective beloved spouses, their disobliging, bigoted families despite different ethnicity, their love of nature, their passion for literature, especially the works of Samuel Johnson, Joseph Kipling and others. They also have in common a sense of duty as well as being proud, polite and courteous.

The major and Mrs Ali surprise themselves by discovering that their hearts have no wrinkles, they can still feel passion and fall in love again regardless of their advanced age, different experiences in life, different cultural backgrounds and religion. All these elements constitute no barrier to common shared interests, mutual attraction and love.

Helen Simonson undertook a fair amount of research into the Pakistani community in England, the Indian Mughal Empire, shot guns and duck shooting. As for the fictitious towns of Edgecombe St. Mary and Hazelbourne-on-the-Sea, they are a combination of places that the author “knows and loves”.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a well written novel with well depicted, realistic, rich characters where women are portrayed as emancipated, strong, determined characters such as Mrs Jasmina Ali, Mrs Rasool, and Roger’s American fiancée, Sandy.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is an endearingly captivating story underlining the differences between the old and the new generation. Despite the humour one cannot help noticing the blatant fanaticism, veiled racism and the insidious link between money and corruption and how money can deteriorate, divide and destroy families. There is also the romantic story between the two protagonists with the assertion that authentic love transcends all obstacles and all ages so long as one is being true to oneself and because as long as there is life, there is hope.

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2 Responses

  1. 1
    Sunanda Krishnamurty 

    A Review of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

    It is an excellent read, thought provoking yet comforting. It deals with a wide range of issues: intercultural differences, the situation of Asian immigrants in Britain, inter-generational conflict, how the older people try to cope in a changing socio cultural environment, and of course love. The plot is strong, the characters are developed well and the writing is excellent. It is a well-crafted book.

    Major Ernest Pettigrew, 67, is a widower living quietly in the village of Edgcombe St. Mary. He is a true gentleman, courteous, kind hearted, helpful, somewhat reticent, and as it turns out, brave. He joins in the local shooting parties and has tea with friends. He is well liked. He buys his special blended tea from the local store owned by a woman of Pakistani origin.

    His only child, a son, lives in London and has a well-paid job in an equity firm. Father and son are complete contrasts, and there is inter-generational discord. The Major disapproves of son’s obsession with making money, making the right contacts, and his insensitivity. The son wants the father to sell the valuable guns to an American, so that he can get a share of the takings. He also wants his father to sell all his books to make room for the latest model of TV with an enormous screen! Major Pettigrew is appalled by the younger generation’s lack of sensitivity, their brashness, their lack of discipline and bad manners.

    In the first page of the book we are introduced to the second principal character, Mrs. Ali, the owner of the local store. Major Pettigrew, has just heard the news of his brother’s sudden death, when the doorbell rings and he finds Mrs. Ali standing there. In time, their casual acquaintance develops into deep friendship and then into love.

    The English people in the village make a lot of the past imperial glory of England, and English superiority over all others. They see Pettigrew as a local, a part of ‘us’, and Mrs. Ali as a foreigner, a part of ‘them’. Immigrants are alright as shopkeepers, but only as long as they know their place.

    The conservatives among the immigrants cling to their family, their community, and their identity. They view this friendship and possible alliance between Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali as something unacceptable that goes against their traditional values, customs and faith.

    The novel ends on a happy note.

    The main theme of the novel is the love between two people from two different cultures. However, there are many sub-plots which are woven into the main theme very skillfully: the conflict of interest over the guns that the Major and his brother inherited from their father; Mrs. Ali’s conservative in-laws who want her to turn over the shop to her nephew and live with them in an appropriate reclusive manner; real estate developers who have major building plans which would change the look of the village; and the local club’s annual dinner-dance where all the contrasting interests collide in a pandemonium. All this is shown with a wry humour.

    There are many interesting characters, each of whom adds something to the novel. On my first reading I found some stereotyping though. The two Americans are stereotyped as brash and insensitive, lacking in the finer qualities of the English, standing out as sore thumbs. However, I admit this does not take away much from the novel. Moreover the plot of the novel would not be the same without stereotypical characters, even among the English and the immigrants.

    I enjoyed reading the book, and I would highly recommend it to others.

    Sunanda Krishnamurty

  2. 2
    Gun Groenendijk 

    I have enjoyed reading about dear old Major Pettigrew’s problems in the English little village where he lives – with humor, Simonson describes this colonial widowed, retired officer and the friends surrounding him – the snobbery around invitation to the local aristocrat Lord Dagenham’s shooting party, the golf club, where many eye brows were raised when the Major rather bravely invites Mrs Ali, the charming Pakistani grocery shop keeper, for whom he has a soft spot, to a fancy dress dance, where the theme was some heroic act of the Major’s father and in connection with a couple of guns that Pettigrew had inherited – one of them had been in the possession of his brother who had just died. Of course a visiting rich American was interested in buying them, but of course the Major did not want to part with them. Pettigrew’s rather spoiled young son and his American girlfriend were also part of the picture. Some parts got a little too involved and long with all the ladies in the village – not always sure of who was who. On the whole an entertaining book.

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