Posted in Book Stuff

*Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

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.



Lilian is the author of Web of Angels, a novel about a mom with DID (multiple personalities). She's also the author of the historical novels, The River Midnight and The Singing Fire, about secrets, friendship and motherhood in 19th century Poland and London.

14 thoughts on “*Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

  1. oh my gosh!! I was debating whether or not to buy this one when I was last in the store, and now my stash of ten new books is down to three, and when I finish these THIS is what I am going to buy. This and Illyria, about which I read on the Chasing Ray blog earlier today.

    Thank you, LN.

  2. I absolutely loved this book. As you pointed out, the nuances in the writing were so marvelously done, the characters really likeable. There was an understated poignancy in the story, and although the ending was a bit flawed, I loved the characters so much, I could forgive it.

    I think it was a marvelous first novel, and I eagerly anticipate more from the author.

    1. Verbivore, I also wondered what the editor’s role was. I’ve had the tendency in early drafts, to want to put everything and the kitchen sink in, and to paint with a broad brush. But there has always been someone to gently point it out, and I temper it in the next draft.

      Becca, that was my response, too. I’m also looking forward to the next novel.

  3. This does look lovely. I will put in on my list. The quotes you’ve provided are a good hint of the writer’s style. Too bad about the less-subtle elements of the story, perhaps it was the editor who wanted to push things so far, worried the book wouldn’t sell.

  4. That’s good to know, Lilian, because I confess I was totally put off by the marketing blitz – it just seemed so cynical and a blatant grab along the, ‘If you loved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, then you’ll *love* this novel too!!!” – the titles, the covers, it all just seemed so calculated as to completely put me off. But I’m glad it’s better than all that after all.

  5. Oh Di, I am so out of the loop–I didn’t even know that there was a blitz or that the blitz of which I was unaware piggy-backed onto the Potato Peel folks (I haven’t read that yet either).

  6. This sounds delightful and I must say what got me initially was the idea of a *retired* military man. To retire from the military must be such bliss. But the love story is obviously what makes it. Lovely review.

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