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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:
• Friday, September 26th, 2014

Paula McLain was born in Fresno, California, in 1965. She is the middle daughter of a mother who left home when McLain was four years old and a father who was often in jail. McLain and her two sisters spent their childhood in various foster homes. When Paula McLain was eighteen she became independent and supported herself by working as a nurses’ aid in a convalescent hospital, then as a pizza delivery girl, an auto-plant worker and a cocktail waitress before coming across a creative writing class when twenty four and discovering that her passion was to be a writer.

Paula Mclain has written two novels to date: A Ticket To Ride in 2008 and The Paris Wife in 2011.
She also wrote a non-fiction book in 2003: Like Family:Growing Up In Other People’s Houses and two poetry books: Less Of Her in 1999 and Stumble, Gorgeous in 2005.

Paula McLain received an MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan in 1996 and fellowships from the corporation of Yaddo, the MacDowell colony, the Ucross Foundation, the Ohio Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. McLain teaches poetry in the MFA program at New England College and lives with her family in Cleveland, Ohio.

The Paris Wife narrated by Hadley, is a well documented, fictionalized biography, which also
respects the historical period in which Hemingway, the famous pillar of American literature, lived with his first wife, Hadley Richardson, in the Paris of the roaring twenties.

The reserved and timid, Hadley Richardson, who has abandoned any hope of love and marriage, is twenty eight years old when, in October 1920, she meets a handsome young man called Ernest Hemingway, eight years younger than herself, at a party in Chicago. They fall in love and after a short courtship and a stream of letters, they get married in 1921 and decide to live in Paris, which at the time is the centre of art and culture and where Hemingway will work as a foreign correspondent.

The Paris Wife is a homage to Hemingway’s first wife Hadley. McLain recognizes that The Moveable Feast – Hemingway’s own posthumously published memoir in 1964 by his fourth wife, Mary Walsh, about his Paris years – was the inspiration that spawned her book. The story is told from Hadley’s perspective in a similar way to The Moveable Feast, which was written from Hemingway’s perspective. He says in his book that it’s about “how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy”.

McLain recounts the short, tumultuous years when Hadley and Hemingway lived together, as well as the beginning of Hemingway’s literary career in the early twenties in Paris. The newly married couple mix with Anglo Saxon expatriates, like American novelist, Francis Scott Fitzgerald and his novelist wife, Zelda, the American poet and critic, Ezra Pound, the American novelist, poet and playwrite, Gertrude Stein and the Irish novelist and poet, James Joyce, to name a few.

Unlike Hemingway, Hadley doesn’t feel at ease mixing with these non-conformist new acquaintances. She discovers that she lacks the ambition and the stamina to pursue her pianistic talent despite the encouragements of her husband and her friends. She is contented to be living through and in the shadow of her highly ambitious husband who is working very hard to make a name for himself in the literary world.

The Paris Wife is a poignant story of two psychologically damaged and therefore highly vulnerable people who love each other deeply without being able to grow old together. They both need each other but can’t lean on or rely on one another. Consequently their marriage is destined to fail.

Hadley loses Hemingway’s trust when she loses the small valise containing all of Hemingway’s three years work manuscripts on a train in the Gare de Lyon on her way to join him in Lausanne. Hemingway’s mistrust deepens further when Hadley announces her unexpected pregnancy to him when he isn’t yet ready for fatherhood and thinks that Hadley is imposing her will. Hemingway loses Hadley’s trust when she first sees his interest in other women and suspects his disloyalty when admiring Lady Duff Twysden, followed by the justified threatening love affair with her unfaithful friend, Pauline Pfeiffer.

After a brief marriage that lasts from 1921 to 1927, Hadley and Hemingway divorce because Hadley refuses Hemingway’s proposal for a “ménage à trois” with Pauline Pfeiffer, a not uncommon practice in the post first world war liberal Paris. Unable to convince Hadley, Hemingway marries Pauline Pfeiffer who becomes the second of his four wives.

Once the irreparable happens, life is never the same again for either of them. “Hemingway still loved Hadley afterwards. He couldn’t and wouldn’t stop loving her, maybe ever, but she killed something in him too. He’d once felt so anchored and solid and safe with her, but now he wondered if he could ever trust anyone”. Much later in his life, Hemingway reveals his regret in the last book he was working on before committing suicide, The Moveable Feast, when he wrote: “I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her”, referring to Hadley.

When Hadley is informed about Hemingway’s suicide by his fourth wife, Mary Walsh, she says: “Tatie was dead. There was nothing Paul – her second husband – could possibly do for me except let me go – back to Paris and Pamplona and San Sebastian, back to Chicago when I was Hadley Richardson, a girl stepping off a train about to meet the man who would change her life. That girl, that impossibly lucky girl, needed nothing”. A sad love story that transcends any epoch.

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