Random House, $15.00, ISBN 978-0-8129-8122-3
Contemporary Fiction, 2010 (Reissue)
Helen Simonson’s critically acclaimed debut, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, is not a romance novel but it is a romantic story nonetheless. It doesn’t follow the formula of the genre, but it is about a man in love.
Major Ernest Pettigrew, at 68, is feeling disconnected from the world around him, especially after his brother died. His son is busy at work and rarely visits, and the Major also finds it hard to reconcile the ways of the young folks today with the culture and values of his generation. This story follows the life of the Major shortly after the death of his brother and explores his interactions with his son, his fellow neighbors, and the widow who runs the local store, Mrs Jasmina Ali. As you can imagine, a romance between the stiff-lipped quintessential English Major and the Pakistani widow will raise eyebrows in this pretty conservative small village of Edgecombe St Mary.
At first I really enjoy reading this book. Ms Simonson manages to effectively convey the loneliness and the feeling of disconnect in the elderly. The sense of estrangement from the “young ones”, the frustration felt when those younger people insist on treating an older person like a stupid child just because that person is old, the way people seem to assume that older people are not supposed to feel love or, heaven forbid, lust – it’s all here, in technicolor, as the Major strikes up a tentative friendship with Mrs Ali while dealing with his relatives in the aftermath of his brother’s funeral.
Unfortunately, the last quarter of the book degenerated into rushed and improbable melodrama. The story deals with racism, as the people in Edgecombe St Mary treat Mrs Ali like a circus attraction and expect her to be grateful for their kindness in putting up with her, but this last quarter also has Mrs Ali’s Muslim relatives behaving like stereotypical evil crazy Muslim villains. In this respect, Ms Simonson’s treatment of Mrs Ali’s relatives is no better than the treatment of the villagers towards Mrs Ali.
It also leaves me feeling rather disquieted, because this reliance on evil Muslim people for the drama only emphasizes the unfortunate implication of the author having Mrs Ali reject her Muslim-Pakistani heritage to find happiness. Early on, the author has the Major realizing that Mrs Ali is different from the boring women in his village because she loves the poetry and works of dead white men. She also loves to brew and serve tea. In other words, Mrs Ali is more English than Pakistani Muslim, and the Major finds this aspect of her attractive enough to turn her into a desirable woman in his eyes. I wonder whether he will feel the same should Mrs Ali prefer serving coffee and waxing lyrical about the works of long-dead Muslim scholars. Mrs Ali’s embrace of the English culture and the story showing me that she is only happy when she shakes off her heritage make Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand seem like another Muslim people are crazy story masquerading as a romantic literary tale.
Yes, I know folks in Pakistan can be very conservative and some of them are just crazy, but here, the crazy Muslim weirdos have no depths – they behave crazy as per the requirements of the plot. Poor Mrs Ali is nothing more than the woman who gets the Major’s engines going again. All I know of her is that she loves reading books written by long dead white people, she loves making and serving tea, and her family treat her badly. Aren’t we glad that the Major is here to save her from those weirdos?
Also, this story has literary pretensions. These people talk about works of long dead white people, because this is what smart people are supposed to talk about in their free time, after all. Everyone else in this story is a member of the great unwashed, blissfully happy in their ignorance, while the Major and Mrs Ali loftily discuss the virtues of the works of Rudyard Kipling, Lord Alfred Tennyson, and the like while turning up their noses at the lurid popular bestsellers of today.
I enjoy Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand initially, but alas, I’m soon put off by the way this story is awashed with colonial pretensions. This one turns out to be yet another book written by and for self-proclaimed intellectual white people to feel good about themselves, while confirming the superiority of their culture over all others. Why can’t Ms Simonson just stick to telling a good story?