Sunday, July 25, 2010

Review: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson

It’s one of the worst clichés that a reviewer can spout: that a book comes along that makes you believe in the power of the novel again. I for one have never doubted the power of the novel, but it certainly is great to read a book like Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and have one’s beliefs reaffirmed.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand tells the story of Major Ernest Pettigrew, British fuddy-duddy of the highest order, and his sudden and consuming romance with local Pakistani shopkeeper Mrs. Jasmina Ali. The two are aging and widowed and just beyond the edge of caring about what kind of scandal their budding relationship causes in the small English village where they live. But what a scandal it does cause – muted but no less detectable.

What makes Simonson’s novel so great is the way it uses the small to illuminate the large. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is full of the manipulations of grown children, petty squabbles over property and possessions, obsessions about religion and dinner parties and climbing the social ladder. But the relationship between Pettigrew and Ali stirs up the much bigger issues of race and class, multiculturalism and tolerance, progress and tradition, colonialism and religious extremism. It is a humorous comedy of manners that owes a debt to the great British novels of the Victorian period, but it is also a novel that very much belongs to the 21st century, tackling so many of the complexities of our modern world.

It isn’t a perfect book, mind you. Simonson has a tendency to overwrite and explain too much about what her characters are thinking. There is an entire swath in the middle of the book where nearly every instance of dialogue is accompanied by a gesture, a thought, or a judgment occurring below the surface of what’s being said. Sometimes these extrapolations are necessary but for the most part Simonson needs to trust that her carefully crafted dialogue says enough on its own. A better editor could have come along and excised so many of these redundant add-ons to the characters’ exchanges.

But it’s a petty grievance. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is an accomplished novel and very serious literature. You’ll fall in love with the Major and Mrs. Ali as they fall in love with each other, and you’ll marvel at how their simple lives can teach us so much about the modern condition and how to find the humanist medium between so many competing extremes.

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