#30: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson

Begun: 4/19/2011
Finished: 4/21/2011
Format: hardcover (library)
Rating: 3.5/5

First, on a totally shallow note, I like it when I can find a cover image that’s a 3D image of the whole book, like at left, as opposed to a flat image of the book cover.  Great, now that I’ve covered that, I’ll get to my review.

I have little patience with people (of any age, although it’s far more prevalent among the more seasoned of us) who speak wistfully or even condescendingly about how much better things were Back in The Day, how it was A Simpler Time.  No, it was not.  It was complicated in a different way.  I hate it because it’s an escape into fantasy nostalgia.  That attitude is basically saying that what’s good about the present is less valuable than what was good about the past.  All that matters is what was good then and what’s bad now, never mind what’s good now and what was bad then.  Not to mention the fact that people have an egregiously distorted idea of how bad things are now (i.e. they’re really not), but that’s a different topic.

Major Pettigrew, the protagonist of this novel, is one of the people who relentlessly looks at the present through the rose-colored glasses of his nostalgia for the past.  And yet somehow I had trouble hating him for it.  The book seems to have been written expressly so as to make it impossible to discuss it without describing it as “charming” or “adorable,” or both at once.  Adorably charming, or charmingly adorable.  It also treads the line of the increasingly populous genre of books that seem written specifically to be read by women’s book clubs who don’t wish to take on anything challenging or potentially polarizing (with the caveat that some book clubs seek out things that are challenging or polarizing).

After the first 50 pages, the book was definitely steeped in Austenian preciousness.  I worried that it would become too precious.  Happily, it did not.  In fact as it progressed, I lost my borderline impatience with all the Capital C Charm as the characters began to surprise me.  To be sure, there’s still not a lot of surprise.  Major Pettigrew is an upstanding English chap of the old school who is surrounded by boorish offspring, boorish Americans, annoyingly busybodyish neighbors and a suitably dastardly real estate developer.  His trials are many, including the inheritance of his father’s prized shotguns, his new friendship with Mrs. Ali, the Pakistani village shopkeeper, the possibility of his village being turned into a theme park and his son’s total lack of social niceties (and his acquisition of an American girlfriend).  And yet somehow these predictable plot points began to bear some resonance.  The American girlfriend turns out to be not so bad.  Mrs. Ali’s potentially stereotyped nephew, a grimly Muslim young man, becomes intriguing.  Pettigrew’s son never quite redeems himself but demonstrates the potential to do so at a later time.  And the sweet romance between the Major and Mrs. Ali is given time to develop believably.

Simonson lets the quotables fly and at times I wished I was reading this on my Kindle so I could more easily mark the passages I might want to quote.  The writing is skillfully held back from overadornment and avoids tipping over into caricature – only just.  Mrs. Ali is subtly spirited but avoids becoming tiresomely “sassy,” and the Major has a dry humor that’s appealing.

So why am I only giving it 3.5 stars?  Because at the end, Simonson resorts to Grand Climactic Confrontations as a resolution.  Seriously, it’s like something out of The Graduate.  There’s a midnight escape and a secret tryst in a cottage and an attempted murder and a moonlight confrontation on the cliffs overlooking the sea, and a couple of one-off characters who suddenly fly in from left field.  It’s all quite a bit much and isn’t really in keeping with the rest of the book.  I found it jarring.

But it says something that I overran my usual one hour of post-workday reading to finish this book almost entirely in one sitting (I began my reading today on page 90 and finished the book).  So it’s recommended, with some criticisms.


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