Monday, March 15, 2010

Simonson's Grand Last Stand

An utterly charming comedy of manners, Helen Simonson's accomplished debut novel, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, recalls no one so much as fellow Brit Jane Austen.

The novel is a warm, wise and witty look at a beleaguered couple, courting in that staid and stately British manner, despite the disapproval of family and friends, who are smugly confident in their judgments.

The Major Pettigrew of the title is a widower living in the village of Edgecombe St. Mary. The Major doesn't realize how lonely he is until Mrs. Ali comes knocking at his door, collecting for the newspaper, as the novel opens.

The success of a comedy of manner lies in its ability to turn convention on its head. Simonson does this with the skill of an experienced novelist. And it is surprising how much material she has to work with: There's not only small-minded family members and snooty villagers, but the local aristocracy who is scheming with an American to subdivide his estate and grasping children who mistake text messages for genuine communication in affairs of the heart.

Neither the Major nor Mrs. Ali are quite what we'd expect. In his late sixties, the Major believes in his gun and golf, duty and decorum, but he's no stuffed shirt. He's a sensitive and observant man who truly wants to do what's right. Mrs. Ali is a shopkeeper of Pakistani origin and that's two strikes against her as far as Pettigrew's family and friends are concerned.

Here is a wonderful passage:

"Now, Mrs. Ali, we were wondering whether we could prevail on you to attend the dance."

"Well, I don't know," said Mrs. Ali. A sudden, shy pleasure lit her face."

"My aunt will not engage in public dancing," said Abdul Wahid. The Major could tell that his voice bubbled with rage, but Daisy only peered at him with condescension suitable for shop assistants who might unwittingly forget their manners.

"We were not expecting her to dance," she said.

"We wanted kind of a welcoming goddess, station in the niche where we keep the hat stand," said Alma. "And Mrs. Ali is so quintessentially Indian, or at least quintessentially Pakistani, in the best sense."

"Actually, I'm from Cambridge," said Mrs. Ali, in a mild voice. "The municipal hospital, ward three. Never been further abroad than the Isle of Wight."

"But no one would know that," said Alma.
If everyone in this novel doesn't live happily ever after, at least the people we care most about are off to a promising start as the book closes. Major Pettigrew does indeed make a last stand and, like all heroic Brits, he wins the day.

As does the reader of this absolutely engaging first novel.

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