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Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

picture of book cover

Despite the gag-worthy sentence “Sometimes love does conquer all” on the jacket flap of Major Pettigrew's Last Stand: A Novel , don’t be alarmed: Helen Simonson’s first novel is a no-nonsense, non-traditional British romance that will delight the reader.

The esteemed Major Pettigrew strikes up a friendship with Mrs. Ali, a Pakistani shop owner, in the small town of Edgecombe, St. Mary.  Both are widowed, and it’s all quite proper —they sit around and discuss Kipling—but they must contend with local gossips, Mrs. Ali’s stern and devoutly Muslim nephew, horrendous relatives on both sides, and the Major’s materialistic son, Roger. The latter has had the misfortune to fall in love with an American, much to his father’s dismay, i.e. “As his son greeted Sandy with a kiss on the lips and an arm around the waist, the Major was left to gape at such a peremptory dismissal of any distinction of national character between Great Britain and the giant striving nation across the Atlantic.” It would be easy to classify the hero as a snob or simply old, but Simonson offers a character that is charmingly polite and restrained.  He’s a man that you root for, whether he's coping with his brother's death (and trying to recoup a family heirloom) or trying to find the right thing to say to his son. It’s also refreshing to see an author give life to a couple in their 50s and 60s, rather than declare them too old for romance.  

Still, there are so many complications and subtle racism toward the Major’s and Mrs. Ali’s romance, culminating in a disastrous local party, that I started to despair. It’s not giving anything away to say that it all works out, although not in the way I was expecting. This is a must-read for any fan of Jane Austen. It would also be a good choice for a book club, with questions that could revolve around immigration, the impact of wealth on a relationship and religion.