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Major Pettigrew's Last Stand (Simonson)

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
Helen Simonson, 2010
Random House
384 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780812981223


Summary
You are about to travel to Edgecombe St. Mary, a small village in the English countryside filled with rolling hills, thatched cottages, and a cast of characters both hilariously original and as familiar as the members of your own family. Among them is Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired), the unlikely hero of Helen Simonson's wondrous debut. Wry, courtly, opinionated, and completely endearing, Major Pettigrew is one of the most indelible characters in contemporary fiction, and from the very first page of this remarkable novel he will steal your heart.

The Major leads a quiet life valuing the proper things that Englishmen have lived by for generations: honor, duty, decorum, and a properly brewed cup of tea. But then his brother's death sparks an unexpected friendship with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the Pakistani shopkeeper from the village. Drawn together by their shared love of literature and the loss of their respective spouses, the Major and Mrs. Ali soon find their friendship blossoming into something more.

But village society insists on embracing him as the quintessential local and her as the permanent foreigner. Can their relationship survive the risks one takes when pursuing happiness in the face of culture and tradition? (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—ca. 1964-65
Where—England, UK
Education—London School of Economics; M.F.A., State
   University of New York, at Stony Brook
Currently—lives in Washington, DC,


Her own words:
I have lived in America for over twenty years. I have been a long-time and proud resident of Brooklyn and have recently moved with my family to the Washington D.C. area. However, I was born in England, and when I was a teenager, my family achieved the English dream—to move to a house in the country.

East Sussex, with its sleepy villages, medieval smuggling towns, and unique pebble-bank shores is my vision of 'home.'' My family lives near Rye, a 14th Century smuggling port on a cobbled hill, from which the sea receded long ago. It is marooned in the Romney Marshes (where Charles Dickens' Pip grew up) yet clings to its designation as a member of the Cinque Ports. Close by are the seaside towns of Hastings and Eastbourne and to the west, the Downs swell up into a ridge of grassy hills topped by the hundred mile trail known as the South Downs Way. It is literary country—Henry James at Lamb House, Rye; Kipling at Batemans, Burwash; Virginia Woolf at Monk's House, near Lewes—and this heritage was always a great inspiration to me.

As a young woman, I could not wait to go to college in London, or to move three thousand miles away from home to America. Yet I have always carried with me a longing for England that will not fade. I think this dichotomy—between the desire for home and the urge to leave—is of central interest to my life and my writing." (From the author's website.)



Book Reviews 
Funny, barbed, delightfully winsome storytelling.... As with the polished work of Alexander McCall Smith, there is never a dull moment.... This book feels fresh despite its conventional blueprint. Its main characters are especially well drawn, and Ms. Simonson makes them as admirable as they are entertaining. They are traditionally built, and that's not just Mr. McCall Smith's euphemism. It's about intelligence, heart, dignity and backbone. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand has them all.
Janet Maslin - New York Times


This thoroughly charming novel wraps Old World sensibility around a story of multicultural conflict involving two widowed people who assume they're done with love. The result is a smart romantic comedy about decency and good manners in a world threatened by men's hair gel, herbal tea and latent racism.... If Simonson can keep this up, she could be heir to the late John Mortimer, and if the Masterpiece Theatre people aren't already sending out casting calls for Major Pettigrew, they should get a move on with decorous haste.
Ron Charles - Washington Post


In her charming debut novel, Simonson tells the tale of Maj. Ernest Pettigrew, an honor-bound Englishman and widower, and the very embodiment of duty and pride. As the novel opens, the major is mourning the loss of his younger brother, Bertie, and attempting to get his hands on Bertie's antique Churchill shotgun—part of a set that the boys' father split between them, but which Bertie's widow doesn't want to hand over. While the major is eager to reunite the pair for tradition's sake, his son, Roger, has plans to sell the heirloom set to a collector for a tidy sum. As he frets over the guns, the major's friendship with Jasmina Ali—the Pakistani widow of the local food shop owner—takes a turn unexpected by the major (but not by readers). The author's dense, descriptive prose wraps around the reader like a comforting cloak, eventually taking on true page-turner urgency as Simonson nudges the major and Jasmina further along and dangles possibilities about the fate of the major's beloved firearms. This is a vastly enjoyable traipse through the English countryside and the long-held traditions of the British aristocracy.
Publishers Weekly


Sixty-eight-year-old Maj. Ernest Pettigrew has settled into a genteel life of quiet retirement in his beloved village of Edgecombe St. Mary. Refined, gentlemanly, unwaveringly proper in his sense of right vs. wrong, and bemused by most things modern, he has little interest in cavalier relationship mores, the Internet, and crass developments and is gently smitten by the widowed Mrs. Ali, the lovely Pakistani owner of the local shop where he buys his tea. After the unsettling death of his brother, Bertie, the Major finds his careful efforts to court Mrs. Ali (who shares his love of literature) constantly nudged off-course by his callow son, Roger; a handful of socialite ladies planning a dinner/dance at the Major's club; and the not-so-subtle racist attitudes his interest in Mrs. Ali engender. Verdict: This irresistibly delightful, thoughtful, and utterly charming and surprising novel reads like the work of a seasoned pro. In fact, it is Simonson's debut. One cannot wait to see what she does next. —Beth E. Andersen, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI
Library Journal


Set-in-his-ways retired British officer tentatively courts charming local widow of Pakistani descent. Shortly after being informed that his younger brother Bertie has suddenly passed away from a coronary, Maj. Ernest Pettigrew answers his door to find Mrs. Ali, proprietress of his village food shop. She's on an errand, but when she steps in to help the somewhat older man during a vulnerable moment, something registers; then they bond over a shared love of Kipling and the loss of their beloved spouses. Their friendship grows slowly, with the two well aware of their very different lives. Though born in England, Mrs. Ali is a member of the Pakistani immigrant community and is being pressured by her surly, religious nephew Abdul Wahid to sign over her business to him. The major belongs to a non-integrated golf club in their village and is girding himself for a messy battle with his sister-in-law Marjorie over a valuable hunting rifle that should rightfully have gone to him after Bertie's death. He also must contend with his grown son Roger, a callow, materialistic Londoner who appears in the village with a leggy American girlfriend and plans to purchase a weekend cottage for reasons that seem more complex than mere family unity. Add to that a single mum with a small boy who bears a striking resemblance to Abdul Wahid, and you have enough distractions to keep the mature sweethearts from taking it to the next level. But the major rallies and asks Mrs. Ali to accompany him to the annual club dance, which happens to have an ill-advised "Indian" theme. The event begins magically but ends disastrously, with the besotted major fearing he has lost his love forever. His only chance at winning her back is to commit to a bold sacrifice without any guarantees it will actually work. Unexpectedly entertaining, with a stiff-upper-lip hero who transcends stereotype, this good-hearted debut doesn't shy away from modern cultural and religious issues, even though they ultimately prove immaterial.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

1. Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali have known one another for a time. What is it about this one moment, when he opens the door to her at the story's onset, that makes him fall in love with her?

2. How would you describe Major Pettigrew? In what way do we see him as "typically English"?

3. Reading and love of books play a defining role in how we are to perceive characters in this book. Talk about the differences in reading habits among Roger, Mrs. Ali, and Mr. Pettigrew.

4. How does Helen Simonson portray Americans in this novel? Is it a fair depiction...or over-drawn?

5. How are outsiders treated in this village...and who are considered outsiders?

6. Small mindedness is an underlying motif in this book. Who in the novel is small-minded? How does this parochialism lead to misunderstanding?

7. Talk about some of the book's humorous plot ingredients: the gun squabble, the aristocrat who loves to hunt, the golf club and its costume party tradition.

8. If you're a fan of English novels, especially the comedy of manners type, you will recognize Simonson's use of stock characters and set-up: a retired military man, a small quiet village, a local aristocrat, multiple misunderstandings. In what way does Simonson, while using these elements, create something deeper, more potent in Major Pettigrew's Last Stand?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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