Archive for the ‘Helen Simonson’ Category

By now, it should hardly be a surprise that I like gentle, charming, rather old-fashioned novels.  I try to push myself to read writers with more modern sensibilities and edge, but, let’s face it, I’m generally unsuccessful with these attempts.  The fact is, if I’m going to read a novel, I love an intelligent but sweet love story, preferably in a rural setting, ideally the UK.  Enter Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson, tailor-made to suit my tastes.  All it was missing were a few picturesque sheep bouncing in a field (and, in all honestly, I imagined them there anyways – sheep, even imaginary ones, make everything better).

The Major, a widower in his late sixties, is reeling from his brother’s unexpected death when we first meet him.  It is in this state that Mrs. Ali, a widow who owns the local shop that supplies his loose tea, finds him.  Though this first encounter is entirely innocent, it brings emotion into what had, until then, been a purely functional acquaintance.  Soon, The Major is driving Mrs. Ali into town and they are spending afternoons discussing Kipling over tea.  How could that not lead to romance?  And, where there are such differences in both class and ethnicity, how could it fail to upset others?  Both the Major’s odious son Roger and Mrs. Ali’s conservative extended family disapprove of the friendship and do so in a vocal and forceful manner.

There are multiple sub-plots which, as other reviewers have pointed out, are weak and ultimately serve only to bulk up what would otherwise have been a very slim volume.  I must admit that, superfluous as it may be, I was rather fond of the sub-plot centered on Roger Pettigrew.  Roger, in his late-twenties, is a self-obsessed, self-important businessman, with little time for others, including his father.  He’s selfish and thoughtless and seems to epitomize the ‘me’ generation to which he belongs.  But you can’t help wondering why he is this way.  The Major recalls how his wife spoiled the boy but you also get the feeling that The Major himself would have been a less than ideal parent, fond of him though I am.  Roger spends most of the novel being awful but, by the end, after his ego has taken many bashings, there’s a hint of redemption in his future.  I have a shocking weakness for tall, dark-haired men named Roger, so I found this evolution most satisfactory.

The ending of the novel gets rather too sensational and the action seems at odds with the quite sensibility that prevails through the bulk of the book.  Dramatic rescues are untaken, lovers are united, other lovers are separated, a homicidal knitter runs amok…It gets a little strange.

In general, all the things that made me love the book could have made it come across as incredibly twee but rather than sentimental, I found it quite amusing.  Nothing was taken too seriously and there was no situation so dire that The Major couldn’t deflect the awkwardness with a dry aside.  This quiet sense of humour kept me smiling throughout.  Also, anyone who makes fun of revolutionaries and overly-earnest teenage poets in the same line clearly deserves my esteem:

The Major wished young men wouldn’t think so much.  It always seemed to result in absurd revolutionary movements or, as in the case of several of his former pupils, the production of very bad poetry.  (P.175) 

I love that Simonson chose to refer to her protagonist as The Major.  Not Ernest, not Pettigrew, but The Major.  I miss living in a world where titles are used and so, apparently, does the Major.  For this, I love him.  The Major is a living anachronism, a man who refers to his love interest, the charming Mrs. Ali, as “dear lady” and who seems in his manners to be not so much sixty-eight as ninety-eight.  Every inch of The Major is proper: he uses the proper titles, he behaves in the proper manner, and he believes in ideals worthy of capitalization, like Duty, Honour and Modesty.  I’m not sure there are people left who talk or act or think this way anymore, but how delightful to be able to read about them and to believe, at least for the length of the novel, that it is so.

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