Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson
I involuntarily waited to read Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. I read about it in “Books of the Times” this past winter, got all fired up to read the book, went immediately to NYPL’s catalog, and swiftly placed a hold. I was then dully informed that I was the 242nd patron to go through those same motions and that at some point in the misty future, I would just maybe get to hold Pettigrew in my hands and read it. That is, after the 241 other people were well and truly done with it. I sighed, dialed down my own excitement for the book, and proceeded to wait as instructed.
Months passed, seasons changed, and still no Pettigrew. I watched the numbers dwindle in the queue with vague enthusiasm, willing myself not to get prematurely excited about the book’s not-so-impending arrival. The one day—a nearly summer day by now with sunshine and warm weather—the miraculous occurred: Pettigrew was waiting for me at the Ottendorfer. I made haste to library and then covetously held the book close to me all the way home. Once there, I cracked open its shiny new cover and began the most pleasant literary experience I’ve had in a very long time.
In short, what Ms. Simonson has accomplished is to write a charming 19th-century country novel that happens to take place in a now very 21st-century England. Major Pettigrew (presumably no relation to Miss Pettigrew) is the honorable protagonist of the story and is remarkable in a number of ways, not least of which is his combination of stereotype and uniqueness: he is an absolute cookie-cutter fusty old Major who remembers “back in the day” most fondly and has a stern appreciation for how things should be done, but he is also the only person in his backwater village who can see beyond the way things have always been done to the way things should be done in honorable, modern society. It’s an interesting mix and one which continues in conflict through much of the novel. He knows what is right, but often has trouble stepping beyond his own boundaries of the way things have always been.
Beyond the characters (ranging from the Major himself, to his stingy sister-in-law, to his idiotic son, to the lovely Mrs. Ali), Pettigrew has a delightfully old-fashioned and simple story: boy meets girl, girl is deemed inappropriate for boy, boy must choose between girl and society, etc., etc. Ms. Simonson’s ability to mix the mundane (admittedly an absolutely perfectly-described mundane) with darker themes such as race and ageism is fascinating and part of what makes Pettigrew truly great. Other parts include the aforementioned characters, a pitch-perfect rural setting, and the occasional beautifully articulated feeling (“Life does often get in the way of one’s reading,” thinks the Major one evening).
Basically, I cannot say enough complimentary things about this book. If you remotely enjoy England, 19th century country novels, “love conquers all!”-type stories, or unbelievable sweetness of expression, definitely get yourself on line to get Pettigrew from the library. Or do what I did immediately after finishing it: go to your local independent bookstore and buy a copy for your mother! You both will no doubt love it.