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Helen Simonson, Major Pettigrew’s last stand

February 12, 2010

If you like warm-hearted novels with a positive ending you may like this. If you like such novels with a touch of social commentary you will probably like this. If you like books like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Miss Garnet’s angel, then this is definitely for you. But if you like a little more meat in your sandwich, a little more fodder for the brain, then you may like to look elsewhere for your next read.

Major Pettigrew’s last stand concerns one widowed Major Pettigrew and the little, very English village in which he lives. He meets Mrs Ali, the English-born-of-Pakistani background owner of the local shop, and the result is a story of racism, classism and materialism as these two find they have much in common but are confronted by bigotry and cultural expectations (from both sides) that set to derail them. I won’t go into details. There are some interesting characters including the Lord of the manor, some businessmen and a self-centred ambitious son, but most are a little too stereotyped for serious analysis. Some valid contemporary issues regarding English village life are raised, particularly regarding the increasing cultural diversity in the population, and the aristocracy and its role in villages, but the plot becomes a little melodramatic and predictable for my preference.

There are however some nice observations in the book:

…as I get older, I find myself insisting on my right to be philosophically sloppy. It’s so hard to maintain that rigour of youth, isn’t it?

I have no patience with all this analysing of writers’ politics … let them analyse the prose.

Good point. I often – as I’m sure many of us do – wonder how much we should take into consideration the politics of the creator. Is it OK to like TS Eliot? Should we listen to Wagner?

Life does often get in the way of one’s reading…

Ain’t that the truth?

Simonson is British born but wrote this in the USA where she now resides. There are quite a few “digs” at America. The Major, with whom we are supposed to sympathise, if not identify, is critical of American “self-absorption” though he discovers that his potential American daughter-in-law has more substance than he thought. The book, does, in fact  explore the way we stereotype each other in ways that can prevent “true” relationship developing. As the Major recognises at one point, he

knew he was a fool. Yet at that moment, he could not find a way to be a different man.

The novel has some genuinely funny scenes and is lightly satirical in that way that the English tend to do well… And so, while it is not my preferred type of reading, it is nicely written and will provide good reading for those who want a bit of grit without the grimness that often accompanies stories of racial conflict and politics. I know a few people to whom I will happily recommend it.

Helen Simonson
Major Pettigrew’s last stand
New York: Random House, 2010
361pp
ISBN: 9781400068937

(Unpublished proof copy, lent)

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 15, 2010 2:33 am

    How interesting that you draw comparisons to the The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Miss Garnet’s Angel. I absolutely detested the Potato Peel book, thought it was ghastly patronising nonsense, but I loved, loved, loved Miss Garnet’s Angel! So now I’m in a real quandry: would I like Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand????

    • February 15, 2010 9:00 am

      LOL kimbofo … a few people have drawn that comparison, among others. I chose those two because I thought there was enough difference between them to make the comparison interesting. The person who lent it to me said “think more Miss Garnet”. I liked Miss Garnet more than Guernsey too – wouldn’t say I loved loved loved it but I did find it more interestingly written, and the character more complex. I’m not sure I’D edge it more to Garnet than Guernsey but I think you’d better check it out for yourself! It’s a quick read.

  2. Jennifer permalink
    September 10, 2010 2:44 am

    I very much liked your review. I too enjoyed the book but also wished for a little less melodrama near the end. It did not need it! I wondered if you could recommend any other novels in the same vein as ‘Major Pettigrew’, ‘Guernsey’ and ‘Garnet’? I have a a friend to whom I loaned these books and who has a birthday approaching! (She adored them all!)

    • September 10, 2010 8:56 am

      Thanks for popping by Jennifer. Glad you liked the review. Must admit I don’t read a lot in this sort of style. The closest I can think of are Ann Patchett’s Bel canto, Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a pearl earring (and perhaps her more recent one – Remarkable creatures – but I haven’t read that yet), and even Deborah Moggach’s Tulip fever. These have all been around for awhile but are the closest I can think of to these Another one that might also fit the bill is an Australian one called The idea of perfection by Kate Grenville. It’s funny, warm, beautifully “characterised” and well-written.

  3. Cathy permalink
    January 15, 2011 8:31 am

    I adored all the books mentioned and LOVED, LOVED, LOVED Major Pettigrew’s last Stand. It was very charming 🙂 Great review!

    • January 15, 2011 9:22 am

      That’s great Cathy … thanks so much for popping by and not only reading but leaving your opinion!

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