For Day 18 of my Book Advent Calendar and the letter “S”, I’ve chosen a gentle read suffused with humour.
Day 18: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson
This is a romantic comedy set in an English village. The protagonist is Major Ernest Pettigrew, a retired British army officer and teacher who left the profession “when the school allowed movies in the bibliographies of literary essays.” He is rigidly proper and sees himself as a defender of civility, responsibility and tradition. One reviewer calls him “a walking thesaurus of irritation: We see him annoyed, dyspeptic, displeased, disapproving, disappointed, dismayed, horrified, outraged, angry, appalled, exasperated, resentful, wincing and flinching.” He makes wonderfully sarcastic jabs at the emptiness of modern values.
He meets Jasmina Ali, a Pakistani shop owner, and the two develop a gentle, reticent affection which seems to surprise both widower and widow. Their romance disrupts their well-settled lives as well as the narrow-minded community with its rigid, tweedy women and restrictive social clubs. The major learns a great deal about the life of a person of colour living in a rural English village.
The characters are all clearly delineated. Roger, the Major’s son, is a hilariously obnoxious, totally self-interested financier. Lord Dagenham is the local nobility who raises ducks which he shoots during his annual duck hunt. Frank Ferguson is the vulgar American who wants to start a housing development which will ruin the charm of the village.
This is a romance but one that touches on issues of race relations, urbanization, and a clash of culture and religion. There is a sensitive portrayal of Mrs. Ali’s conflict: she is torn between her family, especially her controlling brother-in-law, and the freedom of the broader, liberal society, but one which is not very accepting.
This book is reminiscent of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, a book I would also recommend.