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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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• Saturday, November 01st, 2014

Sarah Addison Allen was born in 1971 in Asheville, North Carolina, in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, from a housewife mother and a father who was an editor, a reporter and an award winning columnist in the local paper, the Asheville Citizen-Times. At the age of sixteen Allen wrote her first book: Once From Mood and in 1994 she obtained a B.A. literature Degree from the University of North Carolina at Asheville.

Sarah Addison Allen lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where she writes her novels. Her first book, Tried And True, was published in 2003 under her nom-de-plume, Katie Gallagher. The breakthrough came with her novel, Garden Spells, in 2007 followed by The Sugar Queen in 2008, The Girl Who Chased The Moon in 2010, The Peach Keeper in 2011 and Lost Lake in 2014. Her latest novel, First Frost will be published in January 2015.

Garden Spells – like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or The Shadow Of The Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon – is a magic realism novel which is a literary genre that tightly binds together unreal elements with realistic fiction.

Garden Spells, Sarah Addison Allen’s first novel, takes place in Bascom, North Carolina. It’s the story of the two Waverly sisters: the thirty-four-year-old Claire and the twenty-eight-year-old Sydney, who after being separated and scarred by life, reconcile after a long estrangement in order to cast off the Waverly’s bad reputation in Bascom which has lasted for decades and through generations. The two sisters decide to fight the adversity of life side by side and turn their supernatural gift legacy into a blessing instead of an affliction.

There is also their cousin, the seventy-nine-year old, Evanelle, as well as Bay, Sydney’s five-year-old daughter. The four of them, like all Waverly women, are gifted with magical powers and not forgetting the mysteriously prophetic apple tree in the Waverly’s garden, reminiscent of “The Tree Of Knowledge”: “If you eat an apple from that tree, you’ll see what the biggest event in your life will be”.

Claire has a considerable talent for growing plants as well as being a successful businesswoman. She sells and caters to the locals for most unusual food and drinks, like biscuits with lilac jelly, lavender tea cookies, honeysuckle wine, rose geranium wine etc.. All is prepared using her mystical garden plants which have special, bewitching, curative properties. Claire always has a remedy for people’s problems “that could be solved only by the flowers grown around that apple tree in the Waverlys’ backyard”.

Claire and Sydney were children when their mother left home abandoning them and they were consequently brought up by their grandmother who influenced Claire’s magical culinary practice. Claire grows up to be insecure and introverted. At the beginning she is reluctant to open up even to her sister, Sydney, let alone to Tyler Hughes, the newcomer artist living next door. In order to calm the ardour of her loving neighbour and make him forget her, she makes him a casserole with snapdragon oil and tarts with bachelors’ button petals containing magical powers from the plants and flowers in her back garden.

Sydney, the unruly younger sister is gifted with a “premonitory” acute sense of smell. She can smell someone’s presence before their arrival. After completing high school, Sydney leaves home when eighteen years old and returns back ten years later with her five-year-old daughter, Bay, escaping from her brutal husband, David. Despite her young age, Bay, being a Waverly, is skilled as well and she knows where things or somebody belong.

The seventy-nine-year-old, Evanelle Franklin has psychic powers in anticipating events. At any time of day or night, she can feel the urge to give people unusual gifts which appear useless but turn out to be very beneficial at a certain time and at a precise moment.

Bascom itself is a bizarre town where each family, like the Waverley’s, is known for a certain specific peculiarity that goes back generations: the Hopkins young men marry older women and the Clark women marry wealthy husbands and keep them under their spell with their sexual skill.

Garden Spells is an easy, entertaining read, the supernatural associated with horticulture makes the story a diversion from everyday realistic life. Sarah Addison Allen describes her writing style and genre as a “southern-fried magical realism, with a love story” and “fairy tale aspects, all stirred in a pot like a dish”.