Inquiring Readers: I welcome guest blogger Janeite Lynne, a JASNA-Vermont member, who has penned a review of Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Thank you Lynne for sharing your thoughts about this book that everyone I know has been touting very loudly!
When I first began reading Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to spend a whole book with Major Pettigrew, a widower and retired military man living in Somerset, England. He seemed like a mix of Jane Austen’s minor characters—a stuffy member of the local gentry focused on his position and his guns. But Simonson deftly lets the Major develop and come to life in the first half of the book, and I became engrossed in his story.
The Major, (please don’t refer to him as Mr. or Ernest), is the center of the book and the reason to read it. He is an opinionated man.
On women drivers: “He didn’t like being driven by a woman. He hated their cautious creeping about at intersections, and their heavy-handed indifference to the nuances of gear changing, and their complete ignorance of the rearview mirror.”
On Americans: “Americans seemed to enjoy the sport of publicly humiliating one another. The occasional American sitcoms that came on TV were filled with childish fat men poking fun at others, all rolled eyeballs and metallic taped laughter.”
On the golf club: “It was a source of annoyance to the Major that what had once been a very refined black tie dance, with simple steak menu and a good band, had been turned into a series of increasingly elaborate theme evenings.”
“…it freed them from the sullen charms of waitresses who, culled from the pool of unmotivated young women being spat out by the local school, specialized in a mood of suppressed rage. Many seemed to suffer from some disease of holes in the face and it had taken the Major some time to work out that the club rules required young women to remove all jewelry and that the holes were piercings bereft of decorations.”
As Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand opens, the Major has just learned that his only brother, Bertie, is dead. It is through his reaction to his brother’s death, as well as his growing relationship with Mrs. Ali, a local shop keeper, that Simonson shows us Major Pettigrew as a whole person. As he struggles with the changes in his life, his opinions become less strident and more blurred by the human relationships that he allows himself to experience.
Later in the novel, Mrs. Ali must make a decision to mail a letter that will likely change her life. Major Pettigrew watches her at the postbox.
“He never imagined so clearly the consequences of mailing a letter—the impossibility of retrieving it from the iron mouth of the box…It suddenly seemed horrible that one’s words could not be taken back, one’s thoughts allowed none of the remediation of speaking face to face.”
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, for me, came down to the importance of risking the face to face relationships of life. There are many other plot elements in the book. There are issues of prejudice, land development, and prickly relationships between parents and children. Simonson competently explores each of these, but her writing is at its best when she is drawing the Major and his re-entry into his emotional life. When the book ended, I had come full circle. I was happy in Major Pettigrew’s company, and I wanted to know what he would do next.
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand
Random House, 2010
[Posted by Janiete Lynne]