Helen Simonson’s debut novel Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is the next best thing to spending a holiday in the English countryside. When we meet the title character, Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired), he’s just received the news that his younger brother, Bertie, has died. He’s trying, rather unsuccessfully, to cope with the news when Mrs. Ali, proprietress of the local village shop, appears at his door to collect the paper money. She takes note of his unsteady appearance and offers to make him a cup of tea. Thus begins their relationship.
Mrs. Ali was, he half suspected, an educated woman, a person of culture. Nancy had been such a rare person, too, fond of her books and of little chamber concerts in village churches. But she had left him alone to endure the blunt tweedy concerns of the other women of their acquaintance. Women who talked horses and raffles at the hunt hall and who delighted in clucking over which unreliable young mother from the council cottages had messed up arrangements for this week’s play group at the Village Hall. Mrs. Ali was more like Nancy. She was a butterfly to their scuffle of pigeons. He acknowledged a notion that he might wish to see Mrs. Ali again outside of the shop, and wondered whether this might be proof that he was not as ossified as his sixty-eight years, and the limited opportunities of village life, might suggest.
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is one of those little gems of a novel – beautifully written, with characters so remarkably authentic they seem to jump off the page. Pettigrew is a widower and Mrs. Ali, too, has lost a spouse. They are drawn together because of a shared love of Kipling, but they live in a small town – everysmalltown, really, where everyone knows your name and your business – and not everyone would have them together. Although Mrs. Ali was born in England, she’s Pakistani and therefore viewed by some as ‘unsuitable.’ I think Pettigrew’s feelings for her take him quite by surprise. I suspect he thought that at 68, that part of his life was over.
In some ways, Pettigrew is a stuffed shirt. He likes things ‘just so.’ He desires attention and often believes he’s entitled. The beautiful thing about him, though, is his willingness to change, and he does, too. His relationship with his son, a pompous banker who lives in London, undergoes a transformation. He starts to care less about tangible things, like a pair of shotguns that had once belonged to his father, and more about feelings and people.
To say that nothing much happens in Simonson’s novel is to miss the quiet patina of daily life – much of which, at least as it’s written here, is laugh out loud funny. As people plan parties that can only go awry, as children squabble over their rightful inheritance, as the battle-lines are drawn between cultures, Major Pettigrew tries to find a way to navigate the messy business of living. He is proof that life does offer second chances, if we are brave enough to open our hearts to receive them.