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Thursday, August 18, 2011

BPL Book Discussion: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

In April I read Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson (herein MPLS) and was just captivated by the story.  I suggested it to the Book Club for the second half of 2011, and we read it this week for the August book discussion meeting.

For details about the book, its plot, and appeal, click through to my original post.  Since that groundwork was already laid, I will move right on to the discussion highlights:
  • Followers of this blog know the drill by now.  I began by asking who liked, disliked, and was so-so on the book.  We had 11 likes, 1 so-so, and zero disliked.  The liked were eager to talk.  Sometimes when everyone likes a book, it is hard to keep the discussion going, but in this case, we had people who liked the book for different reasons which added depth to the discussion.
  • Overall, participants cited the humor and the pacing as their two favorite things.  A few people remarked how nice it was that the book unfolded slowly but never felt "slow."  They all loved the time the Major had to ponder things, and the appreciated being a part of his thought processes.  The humor we all agreed was not laugh out loud, but it was pervasive.  Simonson found humor everywhere, much of it by simply holding a glass up to society.
  • We also appreciated how all of the characters (especially the Major) grew over the course of the book. Someone remarked how the second half of the book was so different from the first half that she felt like it was a different book.  We clarified this comment though, by discussing how it was the growth of the characters which made it feel different.
  • I pressed the group to discuss the two "halves" of the book in more detail.  I helped by suggesting we start with the middle point.  While it is not the middle in exact page numbers, the disaster of a dance party at the golf club is the middle of the plot.  As a literary device, the dance party brings together all of the conflicts in the story as they led up to that point, it all explodes, and then the rest of the book is the resolution.  Those who had not "liked" the dance party before this point in the discussion, appreciated it more as a literary device after.
  • The guns were discussed.  The book begins and ends with the pair of Churchill guns.  It begins with the Major trying to reunite the pair after his brother's death and ends as one of the guns tumbles into the ocean.  You cannot ignore a symbol as large as these guns.  Something that bookends the entire novel is worth discussing.  We began by just brainstorming what they symbolize to the Major.  Some answers: family, tradition, inheritance, sign of honor, biggest asset, worth bragging about.  Then we talked about how the Major's feelings move from obsession with reuniting the guns at the novel's opening to his indifference to their irreparable separation at the novel's close as a signifier of his feelings about family, tradition, etc...  He was so obsessed with order and tradition at risk of all else (including love and family) but by the end, all tradition is thrown to the wind (literally and figuratively) in order to live life to its fullest.
  • Classism and racism were discussed at length.  In this story the color of your skin as well as your profession say where you are in society and their is no wiggle room.  The Major is looked at askance just as much for falling in love with a Pakistani woman as the fact that she is from the shopkeeper class.  Simonson lifts the veil on modern English racism.  The people in this book are viciously racist against the Pakistani and Indian community members, yet they feel they are being inclusive. One participant felt like this book was a comment on the post-imperialism era of Britain.  This was a great point.  The Major was part of the official imperialism when he was in the army, but imperialism is aging, much like the Major himself.  It is a new world now in England with native born peoples whose ancestors came from the diaspora and are now just as British as the white people.  We wondered if Simonson could have written such a scathing attack on modern racism in England if she still lived there (she has lived in America for many years now); we were unsure of the answer to this one.
  • The Major is only 68, but he acts older and is treated as older by society.  Since my group participants range in age from mid 50s to well into their 80s, we had a great general discussion about aging and what it means to get older.  The group was generous in their sharing of their personal opinions and experiences on this issue.
  • We talked at length about the growth of some secondary characters such as Abdul, Amina, Roger and Sandy.
  • We also had a discussion about the demise of small town life, which comes up in the novel.
  • The title- Major Pettigrew's Last Stand- was brought up.  We discussed how the Major literally makes his last stand over his love of Mrs. Ali.  It is his last stand to rescue his life from inaction.  It is his last chance to live.  In case you didn't get it by the end, Simonson has the Major literally hanging on for dear life from a cliff while he makes this realization. While this "hitting the reader over the head" normally bothers me, it was in line with the satirical humor throughout the novel.
  • We ended by me asking the group to throw out words or phrases that epitomize this book to them:
    • humor
    • pathos
    • power of love
    • unpredictable
    • nuanced
    • character growth
    • change
    • tradition
    • great descriptions
Readalikes:  Here is what I suggested back in April:
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.
To these suggestions I would also add Paradise Postponed by John Mortimer to the list for readers who want another book that explores small town issues.  For those who want more stories of unusual, cross-racial friendships, I would also suggest The Last Noel by Michael Malone.  And finally, for more late in life love in a character centered story, try Lamb in Love by Carrie Brown.

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