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Author:
• 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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Author:
• Saturday, March 27th, 2010

Tracy Chevalier was born in 1962 and grew up in Washington DC. She obtained a degree in English from Oberlin College in Ohio and worked as a Reference Book editor for a few years before quitting in 1993. She got an MA in Creative Writing in 1994 from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England.

She moved to England in1984 and stayed there since. She now lives with her husband and son in London.

She is chairwoman of The Society of Authors and is known for being a historical novelist. She said the reason why she likes this genre, is because she feels comfortable with the good, lasting value of the past.

Tracy Chevalier, has written six novels to date :
The Virgin Blue, published in 1997.
Girl with a Pearl Earring, published in 1999.
Falling Angels, published in 2001.
The Lady and the Unicorn, published in 2003.
Burning Bright, published in 2007.
Remarkable Creatures, published in 2009.

Girl with a Pearl Earring was made into a film which was released in 2003, starring Colin Firth as Johannes Vermeer and Scarlett Johansson as Griet. It won several awards.

Although Tracy Chevalier likes Vermeer’s thirty five paintings because of their beauty, the mystery surrounding them and also because of what the expressive solitary women accomplishing their daily domestic duties convey to the viewer. Girl With a Pearl Earring, one of Vermeer’s masterpieces, was the painting that inspired her the most because of the hypnotic and enigmatic look on the girl’s face.

Tracy Chevalier had a poster of the Girl With A Pearl Earring painting on her bedroom wall since she was nineteen-years-old. The mysterious look on the “Dutch Mona Lisa’s” face intrigued her to the extent that one day she decided to reveal what might have been behind this portrait by combining history and art with imagination.

The author had to do careful research to successfully capture Dutch peoples’ lives in those days, the landscapes and the surroundings in Delft. She went to the great length of taking a painting class while writing the novel in order to learn about the art of painting and accurately describe the mixing of the colours, the multiple technics, the different shades and their effects and all the intricacies involved.

She also gathered some information about Vermeer’s painting in their finest details from the woman who restored the painting for the 1996 Vermeer exhibition.

Girl with a Pearl Earring, is a novel set in seventeen century Delft in Holland about Vermeer’s eponymous painting. The fictitious story is built on a historical background, depicting life during this golden age of Dutch art. Vermeer being a mysterious painter, since very little is known about his life, gave the author the opportunity with her magic wand to mix the fanciful with reality and fill in the unknown gaps in his biography and therefore build an imaginary, compelling story about Vermeer’s portrait of Girl with a Pearl Earring as being his maid, Griet, who was also his assistant and model.

The novel is narrated by sixteen-year-old, solitary, innocent, naïve but intelligent Griet, who, due to her father’s fatal accident, becomes a maid in Vermeer’s household in order to support her family.

She is spellbound by her master from the first time she sets eyes on him but being aware of her position, she knew her place and therefore had to keep her feelings at bay.

Her quiet love and devotion to him are described in great subtlety during her posing for him, but unfortunately, the author described Vermeer so engulfed in his art, that he was oblivious to the outside world. The fact that he was not insensitive to Griet’s charms and her magnetic attraction to him and his paintings was implied by the author in a subtle way but never in words.

Girl With a Pearl Earring is a highly emotional novel without suspense or twists but is elegantly and poetically written with a great deal of subtlety, sensibility, sensuality and nineteen century romanticism. At times, the unsaid conveyed strongly the feelings of the protagonists.

The author with her description of suggestive, luminescent colours, seems to have succeeded the right oil brush strokes effect she was striving for. She wanted to “achieve with words what Vermeer achieved in paintings: simple writing, uncluttered and without superfluous characters”.

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