For some reason I have found this review very difficult to write and have started and re-started it several times. I think the problem is that Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a very simple novel, but also a very complex one. On one level it’s a gentle, romantic story about sixty-eight year old Major Ernest Pettigrew and his love for Mrs Jasmina Ali, the Pakistani woman who runs the village shop. But there’s so much more to the book than that. In Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson explores a number of issues including racism, religion, loneliness, family relationships and tradition vs progress.
The book is set in the small English village of Edgecombe St Mary where Major Pettigrew, a retired British army officer, lives on his own at Rose Cottage. Both he and Mrs Ali have suffered recent bereavements and are starting to feel very alone in the world. The Major welcomes Mrs Ali’s friendship as she’s refreshingly different from the other women in Edgecombe St Mary; she’s quiet, dignified and shares his love of literature. Unfortunately, the Major’s middle-class friends and neighbours disapprove – they can’t think of Mrs Ali as anything other than the woman from the village shop. Meanwhile, Mrs Ali’s nephew, Abdul Wahid, is also unhappy about his aunt’s new relationship – he’s hoping she’ll move away to live with family so that he can take over the management of the shop. Can the Major and Mrs Ali overcome these obstacles and find happiness?
Major Pettigrew is a wonderful character, both endearing and annoying at the same time. It seemed to me that while he was accusing others of being judgmental, he was constantly making his own judgments about people: northerners, teenagers, Americans and even his own family and friends. However, he is never rude to other people and he does come to discover that some of his own prejudices are unfair. He has a certain amount of old-fashioned charm and I could sympathise with him as he tried to adapt to a rapidly-changing world. I loved him from the beginning because he was a polite, honourable person who genuinely wanted to do the right thing.
I also loved Mrs Ali. She wanted so much to be accepted by her neighbours but struggled to fit in with such a narrow-minded community where most of the other ladies were wrapped up in a world of parties, dances and committees, and didn’t even seem to realise how hurtful and insensitive some of their comments were. Almost all of the other characters, as seen through Major Pettigrew’s eyes, were loud, selfish and bad-mannered, which reflected the way the Major viewed the modern world. The Major’s son Roger was particularly obnoxious!
I really liked the setting of Edgecombe St Mary. Although the story was presumably supposed to be taking place in the 21st century, the descriptions of the village could have been from decades ago and showed a stark contrast with the commercialism and development that the Major hated so much.
If there was one thing that spoiled this book for me, it was a plot development near the end that I thought was unnecessarily dramatic and which felt completely out of place. Up to this point the story had been fairly slow-paced and subtle, concentrating on the small dramas of day to day life, and I would have preferred it to have continued this way to the end. Apart from this small criticism, I really enjoyed this book. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a lovely, inspiring story and for such a gentle, leisurely read it was very difficult to put down!