Friday, December 14, 2012

#26 (cbriv-2012) "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" by Helen Simonson

My reading list is so long these days that I can't even remember how I found most of these "to-reads". And that's the case with Major Pettigrew's Last Stand (2010) by Helen Simonson. However it was recommended to me, I was only about 1/4 of the way through when I was ready to give up on it. Fortunately I kept pushing through and finally started connecting and caring about the characters.

Major Pettigrew is a widowed gentleman living in a small town in the English countryside. He lives a quiet life with quiet pleasures, such as drinking tea and enjoying good literature. Pettigrew is everything that is honorable, right, and proper, but he doesn't seem to have any real connection with anyone. Pettigrew's brother has just died, and he barely sees his son. He strikes up some conversations and then friendship with Mrs. Ali, a Pakistani immigrant, who works at the small, local grocery in town.

It was at this point I was ready to stop. I rarely quit once I start reading something, but Major Pettigrew was so annoying. He was just such a snob, with seemingly no redeeming characteristics. He pranced about the book, looking down on everyone and everything, but not doing anything interesting himself. The only thing he cared about was getting his father's guns back into his hands, so he could show them off to the local gentry. In addition, most of the other characters were simple caricatures. Mrs. Ali was a saint: calm, patient, smart, well-read, beautiful, and a good driver, while her nephew was the epitome of the angry, young, immigrant male. I couldn't understand why Mrs. Ali would be at all interested in Major Pettigrew.

What I did not realize at that still early point in the novel was that Simonson was allowing for growth of her characters. Many of the characters in the book appeared to be caricatures because they were viewed through Pettigrew's eyes and he barely knew them. As Pettigrew got to know the other characters better, different shades of their personalities and motivations began to come out.

In addition, Pettigrew himself changed dramatically as the story continued. Sure, he was still overbearing and distant with his son, but you could see how the strained relationship with his son haunted him. Most importantly, as he began to fall in love with Mrs. Ali, his personal relationships became more important than what shootings he attended. People who are unhappy or who have nothing good or diverting in their lives sometimes seek solace in pretending or seeking superficial superiority over others. This is just me pontificating, but that's why I think truly happy, content people are the nicest. And this is what I think happened to Major Pettigrew. His character became much more likable and sympathetic as the story went on. "He opened his mouth to say that she looked extremely beautiful and deserved armfuls of roses, but the words were lost in committee somewhere, shuffled aside by the parts of his head that worked full-time on avoiding ridicule." (250)

That doesn't mean I thought it was a perfect novel. It would have been nice to have been drawn into the story a little more quickly. The ending also seemed a little overly dramatic than was necessary. It almost felt like it was from a different, more violent, story than the quiet one I had been reading about meadows and relationships. And there was one scene where Major Pettigrew couldn't start his car, but he opened up his power windows to talk to Mrs. Ali. I thought power windows don't work without the car started. Sometimes little details like that just irritate my compulsive soul. However, the story ended up being sweet and original and I'm glad I read it.

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