Review: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Major Ernest Pettigrew is literally reeling around his house in shock on the morning his younger brother dies. A knock comes at his door and it is the lady from the village shop--Mrs. Ali. Mrs. Ali is there to collect money for the paper boy, but she takes one look at the Major and decides that someone needs to assist him. She helps him back inside, makes him a hot cuppa, and just listens as the Major begins to work through his grief. She only leaves when she is sure that he's going to be alright. She comes to his rescue again on the morning of his brother's funeral. The Major makes it out to his car in plenty of time to drive to the funeral, even with traffic, but once he gets in the car, he just can't get going. The world starts spinning. Mrs. Ali happens by, checks on him, then convinces him to hitch a ride with her.
Once the Major's thoughts stop swirling from all this loss, he starts to think about the kind woman who gave of herself to him so freely in his hour of need. They've talked books, and they've both lost their spouses. He starts to look for reasons to spend time with her, a fact that does not go unnoticed in this small English village.
I absolutely adored this book! It's an easy 4.5 stars. I can't say if it was Peter Altschuler's fabulous narration, the Major's dry wit, or the unexpected relationships that made this book a gem, so it must be the whole package.
The characters are just fantastic. There was so much more to the Major than I expected. I expected some sort of repressed "Right-o, carry on then" kind of bore. To paraphrase another character, the Major isn't bad for an old git. I laughed so many times at his dry one-liners. They were made all the funnier because he mostly said them around people who completely missed them. One wouldn't want to seem impolite, now would one? He has definite ideas about Proper Behavior and the Right Thing to Do, but he's also flexible enough to pursue a relationship with a Pakistani woman. He sees past their obvious differences, ignores all the idiots blabbing on tv about relations with the Middle East, and sees through to the beautiful kindred spirit within. He's also got a big streak of the Knight in Shining Armor.
Mrs. Ali is herself a great character. She is a very independent thinker within a culture where that generally seems to be frowned upon in women. She is resisting her in-laws' attempts to get her out of her village shop and living with them. She loves to drive. She loves to read anything she can get her hands on. She's also willing to do anything for those she loves, which sets up some tension.
The minor characters were great too. For the most part, they weren't as fully dimensional as the Major and Mrs. Ali, but a few had surprising depth considering the amount of attention focused on them. Grace comes to mind. She doesn't get a huge number of pages, but I was cheering for her by the end of her story. She is someone I would like to know. Others had more of a stereotypical role to play. The interfering vicar's wife. The Major's sympathetic friend. The social-climbing immigrants. They filled their roles but they were funny or frustrating. I don't think there was anyone at all that I was indifferent to.
I have to mention the Major's son, Roger. What a jackass. How did the sweet Major produce such a self-absorbed lump of flesh?
Amid all these characters who had me laughing and cheering or booing, the author says some big things. Of course there's the obvious theme of East meets West in a time where we seem to be losing common ground, at least if you listen to the talking heads on tv. There's also family responsibility; issues of class and race in England; village life, as in the small-mindedness of it, the sense of community, and the sadness of the inevitable changes; finding the courage to do what is right; and the dilemma facing the second generation of immigrant families, who often find themselves caught between two worlds. I'm sure there's more that I just can't think of at the moment.
Peter Alschuler was a joy to listen to. I could have listened to his very plummy, proper British English all day long. I hate to admit it, but I generally have to turn on subtitles when we watch British movies; I understood this narrator just fine. His voices were great as well. I was a little startled the first time I heard an American woman's voice coming through my speakers.
I can't recommend this highly enough. It's a feel good read with some surprising depth. If you listen to books at all, grab it on audio. I don't know if I would have enjoyed it quite as much if I had read it in print.
Read or listen to an excerpt.
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