Monday, March 14, 2022

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Source of book: Audiobook from the library


My wife read this one with her other book club (the lady knitters, basically), and thought I would enjoy it. She was right, as usual.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a romantic comedy, mostly gentle, but with some incredibly awkward moments, and some crazy stuff that goes down at the end. Along the way, it takes a pretty hard look at racism, prejudice, social hierarchies, suburban sprawl, and the quest for status. 


Major Ernest Pettigrew is a widower living in a small coastal town in Sussex. When the book opens, his younger brother Bertie has just died unexpectedly, and he receives a visit from Jasmina Ali, the local shopkeeper. This ends up becoming the start of first a friendship, then a romance. 


The problem is, the Major exists in a world that views Mrs. Ali as off limits for him. Despite being born in England and educated at the university, she is still viewed as an “immigrant,” rather than truly English. This is in stark contrast to the way that the Americans are treated. Mrs. Ali is also a Muslim - or at least she is from a Muslim family. Her own religious views seem, like those of the Major, to be nominal at best. 


There are a few subplots of interest: will the Major be able to get the other matched gun back from his brother’s estate, or will his money grubbing and vulgar sister in law force its sale? Will the local aristocrat, Lord Daganum, sell off his estate lands to create a subdivision marketed to rich jerks? Will Mrs. Ali be able to get her nephew to marry the mother of his child? And what about the Major’s son Roger, who is obsessed with social climbing, and views everything as a transaction, even love? 


The main plot, however, centers on the annual Christmas party thrown by the golf club. Ah, so much going on with this, much of it hilarious, all of it awkward as hell, and the denouement is farcically over the top. The committee (of ladies) ropes the Major in to assist, decides on a theme related to Indian history, and sends the Major and Grace (who is at least trying not to be racist, bless her heart) to leverage their friendship with Mrs. Ali into the necessary food, decorations, and entertainment “from their Pakistani friend.” 


This brings the Major into contact with two other families: The Rasools, who run a restaurant and catering business, and the Shaws (doctor and wife) who are determined to break into English society. This triangle is complicated enough, of course, but it is also given an edge by the connection of Mrs. Ali’s nephew and the Rasool’s niece - and their illegitimate kid. 


The big - and horrifyingly racist - party gets interrupted by the Rasool’s father grabbing the mike and complaining that his culture is being mocked. He’s right, but this ends up triggering a general melee, both hilarious, and, as it turns out, the final straw for poor Mrs. Ali, who leaves the village afterward. 


From then on, Major Pettigrew realizes that he in fact is madly in love with Jasmina, and, with the help of Grace, pursues her. 


I am leaving out a lot, of course. By the end, we have a fanatical (and possibly insane) aunt stabbing people with a knitting needle, an attempted suicide, an accidental shooting, some nasty breakups, and the revelation that the whole village has been talking behind the Major’s back about his “unsuitable” connection with Jasmina. 


It isn’t really the plot, however amusing and horrifying at turns it is, but the characters that make this book come alive. Major Pettigrew is old school: reserved, unfailingly polite, diplomatic, traditional, and almost always ready with the right thing to say. He is different from most of the “old gits” (as Amina calls him) in that his nostalgic view of the old ways doesn’t come with the racism. He sees no reason to exclude those of Indian or Pakistani descent from society or look down on them. His good manners, so to speak, extend to everyone. That said, he is still an old guy with a lot to learn, and he makes enough blunders throughout the book. He has a chance to grow in a positive way - and he does so. 


Mrs. Ali is also a delightful character. She is not a “type,” but a fully realized character, with her own insecurities, her own dilemmas to work out as best she can, and her own ambivalence toward her neighbors - and family. That she is highly intelligent, well read, and dignified is also obvious - she is in many ways a contrast to the vulgar and gauche Marjory - or even Roger, who should know better. 


Grace is interesting too. She has further to go than the Major in terms of blind spots about racism, but she has a good heart, and she is Mrs. Ali’s other true friend in the village. She also turns out to have a cool head and a good heart when it matters. 


Abdul Wahid, Mrs. Ali’s nephew, is another complex character. He is caught between his traditional Muslim faith, and his own failure to live up to his ideals. He was sent back to Pakistan not knowing he had impregnated Amina, and comes back several years later to find he has a son. Social standards make it difficult for him to simply marry Amina - and family pressure is entirely in the other direction. When the Major takes him in for a few weeks while Amina is living at the shop, the two of them have some fascinating conversations. 


Likewise, the character of Sandy, Roger’s American girlfriend, is not simple. At first, she comes of as just as shallow as Roger, but as the book unfolds, and she lets down her guard with the Major a bit, she turns out to be conflicted too. And, that scene after she gets an abortion is superbly done. 


I also have to give props for the one sex scene in the book. Well, it is not described exactly, but the curtain is drawn only after we know exactly what happens. I love that we do get the desired consummation. And I also love that the woman has to take the lead. Because that’s kind of how it was for me too, and for somewhat similar reasons. Finally, isn’t it great to see a positive portrayal of sexuality in senior citizens? Simonson tells the story mostly from the perspective of Major Pettigrew, although we see a little from Jasmina’s perspective here and there, and she is unafraid to let us see the desire and attraction and unexpected passion between these two older people. 


The narrator for the audiobook is Peter Altschuler - I am not that familiar with him, but his narration is excellent, and adds to the experience. 


Since I was driving, I wasn’t able to recall all of the witty lines, but I will say that it was delightfully British in that sense. I found the book - and the Major - quite delightful. 


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