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Classic review: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

This dryly delightful debut novel is the most endearing love story I've read in a long time.

By Yvonne Zipp / April 17, 2011

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand By Helen Simonson Random House 384 pp.

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[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on March 19, 2010.] The most romantic hero of 2010 couldn’t be played by Robert Pattinson – with or without a tan. In fact, Hollywood wouldn’t have a clue what to do with Major Ernest Pettigrew. For one thing, he’s a stuffy sexagenarian who first appears wearing a bright-pink floral robe. (It belonged to his late wife.) And for another, he’d find the whole business of appearing on screen to be in appallingly bad taste.

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But Helen Simonson’s dryly delightful debut novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is, nonetheless, one of the most endearing love stories I’ve read in a long time. (My copy is already on its way to my mom, and I have a growing list of people who are getting the book as a present.)

After the death of his brother, Bertie, the major finds himself unexpectedly unmoored. He strikes up a friendship with Mrs. Ali, the widowed local shopkeeper, and they bond over Kipling and the loss of their spouses. It doesn’t hurt that Mrs. Ali is a lady of quiet thoughtfulness and innate dignity – whose tweedy neighbors don’t even see her because she is Pakistani and runs a shop. Mrs. Ali might not be running the shop for much longer: Her relatives are pressuring her to give it to a nephew, who will, in return for her generosity, let her continue to live in what used to be her home.

Neither the major nor Mrs. Ali were expecting much more from life, and both are startled at the potential widening of their future. (But both are careful to call it just a friendship.) “It’s funny,” Mrs. Ali tells him, “to be suddenly presented with the possibility of making new friends. One begins to accept, at a certain age, that one has already made all the friends to which one is entitled. One becomes used to them as a static set – with some attrition, of course.”

As their friendship grows, Major Pettigrew finds himself thrust from his comfortable routine and having to face the fact that Edgecombe St. Mary might not be the staunch remnant of right thinking that he’s loved all these years.

In the much-scrutinized world of the village, your neighbors judge you even by the cookies you eat. Shortbread is decorous; iced varieties are apparently embarrassing. (What they would make of an Oreo, I shudder to think.) When the village ladies (led by Daisy, the vicar’s wife) pay a condolence call on the major, they bring tea (dusty stuff in tea bags) and biscuits. “The tin was printed with views of thatched cottages of England and the biscuits were appropriately tumescent; stuffed with fudge, dribbled with pastel icing, or wrapped in assorted foils. He suspected that Alma had picked it out.

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