Over the last few days, I’ve been completely absorbed in reading Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. It’s one of my favourite kinds of stories: a love story between older people. And it’s nearly perfect.
Major Pettigrew, the widowed protoganist whose point of view the third person narrator follows, is a 68 year old retired army officer living in an English village. He is moral, sometimes moralistic, upright, more mellow as an old man than he was as a young father, reticent yet passionate, compassionate yet conservative. He falls for Jasmina Ali, a widowed shopkeeper. She is a 58 year old woman of Pakistani descent, born in Cambridge, the daughter of a professor whose love of literature she has inherited.
I lost myself in this book. I couldn’t put it down. I forgot to analyse what the author was doing. I wanted to know whether Major Pettigrew and Jasmina Ali would live happily ever after.
What I liked best about this novel is the command of character and nuance. So much is conveyed in an economical way about morality, love, prejudice, class, while taking care of the basics: character development, setting, moving the story along.
He had forgotten that grief does not decline in a straight line or along a slow curve like a graph in a child’s math book. Instead it was almost as if his body contained a big pile of garden rubbish full both of heavy lumps of dirt and of sharp thorny brush that would stab him when he least expected it. (p 35)
She hurried down the driveway and as she disappeared, blue dress into deep night, he knew he was a fool. yet at that moment, he could not find a way to be a different man. (p 266)
[T]he lake lapped at their feet and the mountains absorbed their calls and the sky flung its blue parachute over their heads…(p 321)
I would have preferred that this subtlety and nuance carry through all the way to the end. Instead, the novel takes a thrillery turn near the end, with dramatic events that didn’t quite strike me as real. A couple of times earlier in the book, at a country club dance and a duck hunting scene, there was also a tendency to push the bounds of credibility. I wonder if the author (this is her first novel) lacked confidence in the power of her story and its inherent drama. Heightening those events with riot and danger (I won’t say more; I don’t want to give anything away) wasn’t needed. But maybe it added to the novel’s popularity.
Still, it’s an impressive first novel, the kind of book I want to talk to others about, and I loved reading it.