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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

What I'm Reading: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

This week on RA for All I am going to try to catch up on the reviews of all the books I have read in the last month.  So here goes...

While I was on vacation last month, I was looking for an engrossing book.  Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson (hereafter MPLS) was on many people's list of the favorite books they read last year, including Betty at the BPL RA desk, whose opinion I hold in very high esteem.

I was a teensy bit worried that like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, it would not hold up to my high expectations.  I took it with me anyway, and I have to say, I was totally captivated by this book.

The plot is not very important here.  This is a book about the characters, specifically Major Pettigrew himself, a retired, widowed, English gentleman.  The Major completely captivated me.  I had a strange experience with this book.  I both wanted to read it quickly to find out what would happen, AND at the same time, I wanted to slow down because I didn't want my time with Major Pettigrew to end.

The set up here is the Major is at a cross roads in his life.  His brother has just died, his small southern English town is being targeted for redevelopment by an American investor, his son is considering settling down, finally, and he begins a new friendship with the local female Pakistani shop owner.  These events all converge (with many more details and complications) and the Major, who usually sits on the sidelines of life, is forced to act.

The appeal here is the characters.  Major Pettigrew is fascinating.  He wants to live by the class rules of his community, but life has intervened.  What should he do?  This is the question that drive the entire book.  But it is not just the Major and his growth which I liked.  All of the characters here are well drawn and interesting.  There are good guys, and bad guys for sure, but there are also "bad" guys who are really good and "good" guys who turn out to be bad.  The level of nuance is tremendous.  These characters feel real.

While the plot moves steadily, the "action" scenes are few and far between.  You are compelled to read to see what the Major will (or won't do) next.  Sometimes, things inch along (plotwise), while in other moments (the golf club charity ball fiasco, for example) the action is non-stop.

While many would call this a gentle read since it is devoid of technology, has no sex or violence, and is set in a modern, but nostalgic feeling, small town, that description alone would be misleading.  MPLS is about the strict class structures of English society; how the merchant classes can not mix with the higher classes.  There are distinctions everywhere, both class and race and Simpson has a lot to say on this issue.

A better genre classification for this novel is to call it a comedy of manners.  Simpson pokes fun at everyone from the landed gentry to the tree huggers.  But she is also not afraid to tackle the minority side too as she even finds fault with the Pakistani traditions.  She has indictments enough for all, and spares no one in here satire.  This is a book you will have fun reading, but it will also make you think.

This is a touching story.  I literally laughed out-loud, got angry, and even shed a few tears throughout the story.  The central conflict is resolved, but the future is left open.  Not everyone ends up "happily ever after," and in fact, there are still a few questions about some of the secondary characters; however, it is a satisfying ending.

If you want to lose yourself in a story, MPLS is the book for you.

Three Words That Describe This Book: character-centered, comedy of manners, touching

Readalikes:  MPLS reminded me of another book I recently read, The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise by Julia Stuart.  Both books are character centered, gentle but serious, and all about the characters.  Click here to read my review of Stuart's book.  If you liked one, there is a good chance you will enjoy the other.

If you are interested in the racial issues between the British and the Pakistanis in England, I would suggest White Teeth by Zadie Smith.  This is a more complex and more disturbing read, but it is also one of my all time favs.

If you like the story of finding love at any age, I would suggest The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery on the literary side, or Julie and Romeo by Jeanne Ray on the lighter and more humorous side.

Readers may also be interested in the British TV series which also pokes fun at the English class structure, Upstairs, Downstairs.

Although they are very different books, I have not been this captivated by a protagonist since I read Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley.

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