Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Simonson’s First.
I originally intended the first line of this review to say:
this book was silly.
Well, I’m not sure if anything I say after that will allow the book to recover from your ‘pass’ pile. But, I will persist anyway. Upon reflection, and a few conversations, maybe I am just being unkind?
This is Helen Simonson’s first book. One might even say an admirable first novel. And let’s face it, she also had the misfortune of following Jonathan Franzen in the queue—not a fair comparison.
As the English say: “Oh bad luck!”
Let me start here instead:
the central story to this novel is very good.
Major Pettigrew is meant to symbolize all we would expect of an elder gentlemen in a small English town. He has strong beliefs about hard work (what does his son do exactly at that ‘hedge’ fund?), decorum (you do not speak to the club’s membership director that way), justice (the Churchill guns left to he and his brother are meant to be paired together upon one of their deaths), and respect (please call me Major, not Mr. Pettigrew).
Except if Major Pettigrew is all that, he is none of that.
We would expect Major Pettigrew to do nothing but play by the rules of English society. When, in fact, he is the only one who has the courage not to.
He is the most open of all the characters, the one that grows the most and challenges the petty assumptions his society has about what to think and feel and live.
The catalyst for this change is Ms. Ali, a Pakistani shopkeeper in the Village who he befriends. They share a love of reading. They share tea. To both, this mutual friendship is born in the loneliness of their widowhood and perhaps them both being slightly out of the mainstream in their own way. It ultimately grows into a deeper love.
So, the key to the story is watching Major Pettigrew navigate the social rules while doing what he pleases. His son thinks he has lost his mind, the neighbors’ tongues wag, and there is an absurd tribute to English imperialism at the country club’s summer party. Ms. Ali serves as a consultant on the Indian food they are to serve at the gala, only to shock everyone when she shows up at the Major’s guest. There are some funny scenes.
There are nuggets of an excellent novel in MPLS, but oh boy is the story cluttered.
Imagine a great beautiful tree where the trunk is strong and impressive but hundreds of useless, scraggly branches confuse the view.
We have Ms. Ali’s nephew and his religious pursuits, his failed romance.
We have the Major’s son who is a caricature of a greedy, selfish ass soon to marry a ridiculous, ugly American.
We have the Lord of the village who is engaged in a pressing real estate deal to subdivide the English countryside into high-end estates.
Simonson starts all these story lines in motion and distracts us from the main attraction—which is Major Pettigrew and Ms. Ali.
This unfortunately forces Simonson into a Hollywood ending, as she tries to desperately tie together these disparate threads into one satisfying ending. In the last 75 pages alone, we race through a called off wedding, we learn of an abortion, witness blood and murder, reflect on a spurned marriage proposal and save a suicide attempt.
No. I am not kidding.
I’m sorry, I thought this was supposed to be the quiet, bucolic countryside…
There are moments of strength and the writing is enjoyable enough. Somewhere on my scribbles on the back page I wrote: “Underdeveloped characters and overdeveloped plot.”
I don’t want to be unkind…this is not a hard cover purchase I can in good faith recommend.
But, as the back cover states: “I can’t wait to see what she does next.”