Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson

They drink a lot of tea in this novel.  So much tea, I’m reminded of the beer-swilling characters in a Larry Brown novel.  But where a Brown character will grab a can from the cooler, drink it down and toss the can on the floor of his pickup, here the tea comes on gleaming silver trays carried in from the kitchen.  It is served in fine china cups with a side dish of delicate pastries.  Properly brewed and served, this quintessential English beverage sets everything right, or at least, prepares one for the next crisis.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen SimonsonThe very proper Major Ernest Pettigrew, 6 years widowed, finds himself attracted to the beautiful Pakistani shop-keeper.  Ten years his junior, Mrs. Ali understands the grief he feels at having lost his younger brother, Bertie.  They have much in common.  She shares the Major’s love of reading, his belief in the importance of family, and his insistence on all things proper.  The process of watching this unlikely pair fall in love is as delicious as one of the iced pastries served with the steaming cups of tea.

The citizens of Edgecombe St. Mary see Mrs. Ali as a “foreigner.”  With a cast of characters that includes an impoverished aristocrat, a clueless son, greedy relatives, religious nuts, and bigoted villagers, Simonson takes us to a golf club dance replete with drunkenness, racial tension, overturned tables and smashed chairs.  There are duck shoots  (“… one could never be sure these days who would be offended by being handed a dead mallard bleeding from a breast full of tooth-breaking shot and sticky about the neck with dog saliva), political demonstrations, family feuds, and priceless antique guns.

An upscale housing development threatens their bucolic way of life.  A broken engagement nearly derails the ambitions of the Major’s son.  A little boy is born without a father  (“…  the shame of having an illegitimate child does seem so trivial compared to that beautiful child”).

It is a… I hate to use the word, but there is no other…. a delightful book.

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