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The Very Model of a Proper English Novel   Leave a comment

Major Pettigrew
Easy to visualize characters, plots driven by class conflict, issues of the heart (or both) and a very proper sense of, well, what’s proper are what make English Lit so appealing to me. Yes, the above could easily refer to classic British literature, but it also applies to Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand – a very contemporary work.

Simonson’s novel begins with a chance meeting between the Major (his first name is Ernest, while apt doesn’t fit him as snugly as his military title) and Mrs. Jasmina Ali, a Pakistani shopkeeper. Although their paths have crossed in the past, this encounter comes at a vulnerable point in the Major’s life: he’s just learned of his brother’s death. What follows is the evolution of a friendship based on a passion for books and widowhood.

Both characters are thoroughly engaging. The Major in his stilted, decorous yet sensitive manner has appeal, and Mrs. Ali is an exceptionally intelligent woman burdened by a certain sadness associated with being considered an outsider in her home country. Simonson portrays people we know or would like to; they’re well-defined individuals with foibles, principles and dreams. The cast of lesser characters, including Roger, the Major’s obnoxious status-seeking son, enhance the story.

The novel moves at a leisurely pace as the Major and Mrs. Ali embark on a relationship that puts a spark in their step and ultimately has tongues wagging throughout the village. Simonson clearly enjoys thumbing her nose at what’s considered suitable or not.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand
Four Bookmarks
Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2011
358 pages (not including the Reader’s Guide)

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