This was another book I picked up on a whim but unlike the last time, this time I was rewarded with quite a delightful read. This book I literally “picked up” off the free shelves a a local coffeshop. They have a shelf that is labeled “take a book, leave a book” and last time I was there this caught my eye and I came home with it. As an aside, I like the coffee and I like the idea of supporting a local business. But they certainly won my heart (and my future business) with this informal community book exchange idea.
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a debut novel by Helen Simonson and as I said above, it’s quite an enjoyable read. The Major is the quintessential British gentleman. He’s a widow of “advanced” years (at 68 yrs old) and lives in a small English village where tradition and keeping up outward appearances reign supreme. He becomes friends with the English born Pakistani local shopkeeper, Mrs. Ali. It’s not a spoiler to say that the friendship slowly blossoms into love. As the Major deals with his feelings and what they means to his standing in the village, he also is grieving his brother’s recent death and dealing with his own less than perfect relationship with his son.
One part of the book that bothered me was a passage where the Vicar (who is a close friend) of the Major confronts him about his relationship with Mrs. Ali. The Vicar tells the Major that he’s seen:
“people get into these kind of relationship- different backgrounds, different faiths, and so on – as if it’s not a big issue. They want the church’s blessing and off they go into the sunset as if everything will be easy.”
….[the Vicar] looked anguished. “And they want me to promise that God loves them equally.”
“I take it he does not?” said the Major.
“Of course he does,” said the Vicar. “But that doesn’t mean they’ll both be saved, does it? They want me to promise they’ll be together in heaven, when the truth is I can’t even offer both a plot in the cemetery. They expect me to soft-pedal Jesus as if he’s just one of many possible options.”
“Sort of like a cosmic pick-and-mix?” said the Major.
“Exactly….Often, I think, they don’t believe in anything at all and they just want to prove to themselves that I don’t really believe anything either.”
The problem I had with this passage is that the Vicar is lumped in with the same people who object to Mrs. Ali because she is dark-skinned or because she is a shopkeeper. And while I would agree that treating someone badly due to their religion is just as bad as treating someone badly due to their race, I think it’s a different issue when it comes to marriage. One of the themes of the book is that passion and love grow out of friendship, which grows out of mutual interests and shared values. I agree with the Vicar that it’s naive to think that if your religion is important to you than it won’t matter if you marry someone of a different faith. In the end, I realized that the Major is probably someone who doesn’t really “believe much of anything” and so his resentment of the Vicar is consistent with his character. And from a literary standpoint, I can live with that.
The jacket blurbs for this book compare it to a Jane Austen novel and I think that’s a valid comparison as much of this book is a comedy of manners. (And as a comedy it’s well done. It’s quite funny, especially the dry sarcastic humor of the Major.) Many of the characters are painted broadly for effect and there are several cases of coincidences being needed to carry the plot along. In the end, all the little bits and pieces are resolved somewhat tidily. In comparison to many modern books, this makes this one seem clunky or naive. But it alsobegs the comparison to Austen (think of Mrs. Elton or Mrs. Bennet or the way that Elizabeth just happens upon Mr. Darcy’s estate in Pride and Prejudice) or even Dickens in the broad characters, plot devices and neatly packaged endings.
Major Pettigrew also reminded me of La’s Orchestra Saves the World and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. There are the obvious connections of England and small villages. All three also seem to have as a central theme that a small ordinary life can actually be quite large if lived well. And then finally, all three just felt similar to me. There are books that challenge you. Books that change you. Books that are purely candy pleasure. Major Pettigrew is none of these. It’s a quite good, enjoyable read that didn’t change my life but that was time well spent nonetheless.