Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. New York: Random House, 2010.
It began with the Churchills – a pair of rifles given to the Major’s father by the Maharishi himself after the Colonel saved the spiritual leader’s wife from a riot during the bloody Indian Partition of 1947. The Major was a mere boy then when his family lived in what is now Pakistan, but the honor associated with these fine guns is still a point of pride for the Major. He has long dreamed of walking the fields with the local aristocracy, the Churchills broken across his arm and ready for the hunt.
On the Colonel’s death bed, the Major and his brother Bernie were each given a Churchill with the understanding that the pair would be reunited upon their deaths and passed on to Roger, the Major’s son and sole heir to the family name. The Major takes such pride in the proper execution of family matters that he often opens his small iron strongbox, spreads out the thick pages of his will and reads over the list of assets and distribution. “It reads like a list of achievements.”
So it is to be expected that on the day of Bernie’s death, a moment that pains the Major with great grief, his thoughts naturally go to the reunion of these guns. They must be cared for – their stocks polished to a sheen, their barrels oiled, their triggers at ready. But there’s a problem – Bernie has left his estate to his wife Marjorie without any mention of the father’s directive, and all she and her daughter – and Roger, too, for that matter – can think of is the money the guns will fetch, especially if sold to an American businessman who is buying his way into the English gentry.
But the Churchills are not the only concern disrupting the Major’s carefully manicured life. He finds himself drawn to the elegant Mrs. Ali – the Pakistani shopkeeper at the local convenience store where he buys his tea and a widow like himself. They share a love of books, especially Kipling, and a familial connection to Pakistan. But therein lays the rub: the locals don’t approve of immigrants (Mrs. Ali was born in Sussex, but never mind), and even the Major wonders whether his growing attraction to her is proper. “They pretend to be English. Some of them were even born here. But under the surface were all these barbaric notions and allegiances to foreign customs.”
Helen Simonson’s witty and touching story blends generational, cultural, class and gender conflicts into a delightful read, especially when these elements collide at the annual golf club costume party. Wanting to trump last year’s successful ‘Last Days of Pompeii’, the planning committee, composed of every gossip and old bitty in the neighborhood, chooses to blend Bollywood with a reenactment of the Colonel’s famous heroic efforts, complete with the gift of the Churchills.
As might be expected when cultural differences are mixed with great quantities of alcohol, the evening ends in disaster, and Major Pettigrew confronts a dilemma: Should he follow his heart and pursue Mrs. Ali, who was humiliated by the offensive pageantry and struggles with her own family traditions, or accept that the world is, indeed, made up of us and them?
For anyone who has lived in a small community where one’s every action is scrutinized by others, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand will seem familiar territory. Chocked full of characters – from the twittering next-door neighbor to the crass American to the obnoxious son – the novel has an enjoyable blend of humor, hubris and a happy ending.
My Wine Recommendation
Major Pettigrew is a traditionalist, so when he has wine with dinner, it must be a proper claret. To the British, that means a French Burgundy. My recommendation for the Major and Mrs. Ali is the 2015 Chateau de Bel-Air, Lalande-de-Pomerol. It has a seductive floral nose with violets and jasmine and tastes of red fruits and sweet spices. $25