What makes Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson so special is not the story, although the plot is full of subtle wit and unforseeable plot twists, but the rich and quirky characterizations of the personalities living in the small town outside London, England.
At first Major Pettigrew seems kind of opinionated and stuffy, but his relationship with Mrs. Allie, the shop keeper of Pakistanee descent, softens his attitude, and making him endearing to the reader. We find ourselves rooting for the Major as he attempts to surreptitiously woo the widow while remaining a perfect gentleman.
To make the enjoyment even more complete, add in a couple of obnoxious, money grubbing in laws, a son who pursues prestige over tradition, a Lord willing to sell out the entire village in order to maintain his decadent lifestyle, a crass, egocentric American Industrialist whose annoying behavior threatens to ruin every gathering he attends, and a woman’s group who between gossiping sessions run many of the social events expounded upon in the novel.
In short, the Major finds himself having difficulty dealing with the death of his brother and Mrs. Allie, the local shop keeper, who happens to be in the right place at the right time, is able to comfort the man. There is a spark between the two and as they both deal with their own personal challenges involving the embarrassing indiscretions of various family members, they find a moments relief and even joy in each other’s company.
A major focal point in the tale is the story of the two matched rifles, Churchills, which were presented to the Major’s grandfather by an Indian Maharaja, as a reward for protecting his daughter from harm by some rebels. While the Major expected to inherit the pair, his father gave one to his brother with the expectation the two would be reunited upon one of their deaths. No such stipulation was written into the will and much to his horror, his sister in law is mentally spending the money to be earned by selling the family heirloom(s). The Churchills seem to drive the plot forward, somehow relating to the various interactions of the characters throughout the plot.
While there is a bit of action, along with a few plot twists, most of the story focuses upon the life of the Major as he pursues his interests (such as plotting the ways he can keep both Churchills) while trying to advance his relationship with the alluring Mrs. Allee. His clever, deprecating remarks to the questionable comments of his fellow townspeople result in numerous laugh out loud moments, a personal barometer of a book destined to be a favorite. The contentious relationship between father and son also inexplicably brings a smile to my face as despite their different viewpoints on life, they reluctantly share a love which goes beyond kinship. Kudos to Simonson for a superb debut novel as well as to Peter Altschuler who was the spectacular reader of the audiotape.
My five star rating shouldn’t be a surprise and I hope the movie version lives up to the cleverness of the author’s original text.
This review also appears on Goodreads.