|My new favorite romance hero is a 68 year old retired British army major with a penchant for antique guns, Kipling and red housecoats. I urge you to read Helen Simonson’s delightful debut novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand; you might find yourself agreeing with me.
Major Ernest Pettigrew has been a widower for six years, filling his quiet life in Edgecombe St. Mary with golf games and occasional visits from his social-climbing son Roger. His world changes forever, however, when a phone call informing him of his brother Bertie’s death coincides with a visit from Mrs. Ali, the Pakistani shopkeeper who has come to collect the newspaper money. The lovely widow sees his distress (as well as the fact that he is wearing his late wife’s crimson housecoat) and soothes him with a cup of tea. Their brief interaction is the first step in a slowly developing romance based on a shared love of literature and a fascination with each other’s very different views on family.
Major Pettigrew had maintained a cordial relationship with his late brother, but his main concern now is obtaining the antique Churchill gun that his father gave to Bertie years ago with the understanding that it would be reunited with the one owned by the Major upon either sibling’s death. Unfortunately, both Bertie’s boorish wife Marjorie and the Major’s son Roger have more mercenary plans for the pair of guns. Meanwhile, although Mrs. Ali officially owns the small grocery store she runs, she is under pressure from her extended family to turn it over to her nephew so he can afford a good wife from Pakistan and she can retire to be an officially valued, unofficially pitied, childless auntie.
The Major’s struggles to obtain the Churchill and Mrs. Ali’s quiet efforts to maintain her independence are intertwined with their tentative romance. The Major is an honorable man who chafes at the subtle and not so subtle prejudice Mrs. Ali experiences, but he is also very traditional. How far out of his comfort zone will he go to protect her? And how much of her own happiness is Mrs. Ali willing to sacrifice in the name of family loyalty?
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand combines gentle, wry humor with astute observations on prejudice, religion, and materialism. The novel is told through the Major’s singular point of view, leaving Mrs. Ali (although he learns to his delight that her first name is Jasmina, she remains Mrs. Ali to the proper Major even as he is fantasizing about seducing her) as a bit of a cipher, albeit an admirable one. Other characters, including the odious Marjorie and the superficial yet not entirely heartless Roger, come fully to life with a few words of dialogue or description. I haven’t even mentioned the golf club’s hilarious yet tragic annual dance, or the few stereotypically ugly, loud Americans who pepper the narrative. By the time the Major makes the titular last stand, risking everything he thought he valued for love, the reader is completely entranced and enchanted. Fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society will take this novel to heart too, and hope that Helen Simonson has more magic up her sleeve.