Library Director’s Notebook
Sometimes I’m in the mood for a very proper, witty, literate– in short, a very British-- story. I found one recently when I borrowed Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson.
Although set in modern day Britain in the small village of Edgecombe St. Mary, the book is redolent with the atmosphere of the formerly dominant British Empire. Class consciousness, xenophobia, stiff upper lips, and British reserve abound. The opinions of one’s neighbors count for more than a little something, and may even keep a person from forming new friendships in the small, closed world of village life.
At least, that appears to be the case for retired Major Ernest Pettigrew. A widower with his brother recently deceased, lonely Major Pettigrew is suddenly drawn into a friendship with a Pakistani shopkeeper in the village called Mrs. Jasmina Ali. More than all his friends and family, Mrs. Ali seems to show true compassion at the loss of his brother. The Major finds it at first odd but soon quite natural to be seeking and enjoying her company.
But what seems natural to him appears very much not the thing to his neighbors. Appalled that he would choose to spend time with someone who is both a shopkeeper and a foreigner, Major Pettigrew’s snobbish country club friends and neighbors call upon a battery of subtle slights, sneering innuendo, and outright counter attacks to discourage the relationship. Meanwhile, Mrs. Ali herself comes under no small pressure from her conservative and censorious family to end the budding friendship. With so much against them, it would appear that the relationship between this modern day, aging Romeo and Juliet is doomed.
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a delightful combination of love story, comedy, and social commentary. The Major’s struggles to overcome his own prejudices and social inhibitions are both amusing and touching. Mrs. Ali’s brave attempts to make a life independent of her harshly judgmental family are worthy of admiration. We can’t help but cheer for the Major and Mrs. Ali, though we know their relationship will be fraught with challenges. This is a book to read with delight from beginning to end, knowing that friendship can grow and love triumph, even, it would seem, in the most hidebound “olde English village”!