Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Book Review: "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" by Helen Simonson

This is an  utterly lovely and delightful book.  One of the blurbs compared it to Jane Austin.  I think I agree, although I'm not a huge Jane Austin fan. Like Austin's work, this book is very honest about the British class system -- without ever being disrespectful, unkind or impolite.  I'm not sure how Simonson accomplished that, but she did. The characters manage to transcend their backgrounds and cultural prejudices in ways that made my heart soar at the very idea that such a thing could happen in our world that is fractured by prejudice and hate.

Major Pettigrew is the heir of a very old British aristocratic family that lost most of its money but still has a lot of its accumulated "stuff."  His wife is dead. His younger brother recently died.  His son is a materialistic and rather greedy would-be businessman who lives in London and is shacking up with an American woman (who appears to be a better businessperson than the son). His brother's widow and daughter are the kind of greedy and petty people who give "relatives" a bad name.  The Major plays golf at the club and putters around his house some, but his primary passion is reading.

Mrs. Ali is the widow of the owner of the local grocery store.  She is British-born and has never traveled farther than Cambridge, but her heritage is Pakistani, so she is a social outcast in the tiny community.  She has no children of her own, but is playing host to her husband's surly nephew, recently returned from a temporary exile in Pakistan where he studied and took to heart some of the more conservative elements of contemporary Islam.

Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali embark on an unlikely friendship that begins with a love of books and ends  ... well, it grows into something totally objectionable to both their families and most of the neighbors. Fortunately for the reader, Major Pettigrew and the amazing and endlessly delightful (not to mention constantly surprising) Mrs. Ali (Imagine a Brit of Pakistani heritage who reads Kipling!!) don't let prejudice or religion or their families or their friends stand in their way.

This is a very short book and a simple story, but it's told with respect and honesty, and the two main characters are utterly delightful.  There are some not-so-delightful relatives and friends, but none of them are so horrible that the reader can't at least understand their point of view.

I loved the book!  It's a first novel for Simonson.  I sincerely hope it's not the last!

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