Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
By Helen Simonsen
I had no business taking as long as I did to finish this novel and this novel had no business being as good as it ended up being.
First, I'm sorry for the extended time lapse between books. I may have been excused had it been a 1000 page opus or something by Thomas Pynchon but alas, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is a solidly average 360 pages and not terribly difficult to understand. I'd like to say I've been busy but the fact is, July and August are my slowest months at work and I've had heaps of time to read. I felt like I was reading my usual amount but it never seemed as if I was getting anywhere in this book.
Anyway, I'm done now, so let's see what's what.
Part of the blame for my slow read is that I initially despised this book. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is, loosely, the story of a retired British major named (you guessed it!) Pettigrew. Major Pettigrew is a widower who lives modestly in a seaside English village in Sussex. He is a stereotype of the colonial variety. Stiff upper lip, rigid spine and calculated remarks ("Good show, old chap! Hup, hup!"). He dislikes much of modern society and diminutives. The rest of the characters in the novel (Major Pettigrew's fellow villagers) didn't seem any less simplified. Characters from a bygone age of honor, title and Empire. Characters with ridiculously outdated notions propriety as they mindlessly live out their orderly lives in bigoted conceit.
Superimposed over the village is a community of modern British citizens of Pakistani descent and more recent immigrant arrivals from the subcontinent (all the same to the English-born villagers, of course). These two communities have developed a symbiotic working relationship (a mutual respect for distance) in town but don't much mix. Despite their differences, the two communities have much in common but interaction between the two communities remains nothing more than an updated version of the colonial system in British India (where Major Pettigrew's father served). The relationship is understood... that is until Major Pettigrew falls for the lovely Mrs. Jasmina Ali, owner of a downtown shop.
As I read, it was precisely the things I disliked about the book, the oversimplified characters, the impossibly elitist antagonists, the over-the-top snobbishness and the sheer pretentiousness of it all that finally sucked me in. Once I found my bearings in this novel and realized that Helen Simonsen was taking the Major about as seriously as I was, I began to fall for him. It was a riot reading about how ultra-traditional colonial era English townspeople would handle the complex problems of modern society, specifically the risks undertaken by individuals in the face of tradition and family.
What's interesting is the way in which Simonsen compares the fierce traditional values of a Muslim family with those of a traditional English family. Despite the fact that we tend to identify one culture as free and democratic and the other as oppressive, at their hearts both traditions have the ability to stifle and suppress. There is a correct way in which to deal with specific situations and rarely does one stray from these social expectations.
What's more, once I got suckered into these characters I found myself sympathizing with them more often than not. Turns out these crown and country folk (well, the Major in particular) have a lot to say and much of it makes a lot of sense. I especially enjoyed the relationship between the Major and his hopelessly modern son Roger (another juxtaposition of culture: generational) who seems to think he knows exactly what is good for his elderly father. I particularly love the way in which Simonsen sets up her characters for their comeuppance. If you are going to write stereotype, make sure they are treated as such.
At its heart, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is a wonderful comedy of manners in the style of P.G. Wodehouse and Noel Coward. There are enough slapstick antics throughout to appease Oscar Wilde (or Basil Faulty) himself. Although the tone finds a more serious track in the final third of the novel where the realities of the dysfunctional Muslim family infiltrate the narrative with more force, Simonsen never loses sight of her comedic objectives and maintains enough humor and dry wit to counterbalance the shifting tone. It's the literary equivalent of walking the edge of the chalk cliffs of Sussex. In lesser hands I fear that the story might have slipped and lost its footing.
As it turns out Ms. Simonsen has as much stiff upper lip as the Major.