What I’m reading: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson

But first, a bit of friendly advice: get this book immediately, cue it up, have it ready to go… but don’t start it until your schedule is clear. I opened this, just to read a chapter before diving into homework, at around ten on Monday night. I emerged from the last page six hours later, blinking and yawning, to the sinking realization that I had to be up in three hours. Tuesday was not fun and was fueled solely by coffee and chocolate-covered Oreos. (Strike that, parts of Tuesday were absolutely divine: mmmm… chocolate-covered Oreos.) Monday night, however, was great fun, so I’ll focus on that.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, Helen Simonson

Major Pettigrew is an iron-clad British widower in his sixties. Methodical, conservative, proper, respectful… he has lived his entire life in the same house in the small town of Edgecombe St Mary. He drinks perfectly brewed hot tea religiously, despairs of his pretentious twit of a son in London and cherishes his antique rifles, gifted to his military father in return for an act of bravery during the twilight of the British Empire in India. He’s been alone for several years, and the recent death of his brother has left him feeling completely unmoored from his life.

Mrs. Ali is a shop-keeper in the staid little town of Edgecombe St. Mary. Although the townspeople are happy to buy milk and bread from her, her inclusion in the life of the town hasn’t extended beyond her role as a merchant. Although no one knows precisely where she came from,  they think it must be India or Pakistan or somewhere… somewhere foreign. Somewhere Britain used to rule. Mrs Ali actually hasn’t been further abroad than the Isle of Wight; she was born shortly after her father emigrated during the Partition, but her skin and her religion are enough to mark her as definitely Other.  After the death of her husband, his family has been pressuring her to leave the successful shop to a younger member of the family and move in with a nephew needing child care, allowing her to spend her twilight years untroubled by trade. Trouble is, she loves her shop, and her independence, and spending the rest of her life as a live-in nanny in her fundamentalist Muslim nephew’s home seems a particularly awful fate.

Both are alone, lonely, unsettled and vaguely despairing about their future. But they are middle-aged… Romeo and Juliet can rush off into passion, ignoring family and society (with perhaps less than successful results), Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali, however, have their feet firmly in the ground, heads and hearts twisted up with family obligations and complications, social structures and strictures and all of the, well, stuff that accumulates in a life.

Did I mention I loved this book? Major Pettigrew seems like he ambled out of a Miss Marple story. Actually, the entire story– location, characters, class differences, prejudices and assumptions–could have been lifted out of the Christie canon. If, of course, Ms. Christie were writing now, in a decidedly post-colonial world, instead holding on so dearly to the twilight of the empire. And that’s why I loved it- I love the Marple books, I want to retire in St. Mary’s Mead and gossip with old ladies (one of whom I will then be) over tea about the butcher. But the Christie books are so unforgivably and unremittingly xenophobic. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand takes that little enclave of nationalism, airs it out, shakes out the wrinkles, and says “No, this is what it means to be British.”

Also posted in my LibraryThing reading journal.

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