Does “delightful” sound demeaning? It shouldn’t, because Helen Simonson‘s debut novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, is just that and it’s a gem. A small-scale domestic romance, set among the middle-aged widows and widowers of a small English village, this IndieBound pick is the kind of good-natured book that depends on note-perfect details to succeed, and Simonson has them: from the brewing of tea to the pacing of dialogue among a certain educated, but quite restrained class.
Major Pettigrew, our retired hero, has just learned of the death of his brother, as this positively charming–there’s another of those words–opens. Temporarily overcome by grief, he is aided by Mrs. Ali, the local shopkeeper, who has dropped by to make a delivery. And that touch of kindness sparks an unlikely sequence of events that will shake the village of Edgecombe St. Mary to its duck-shooting Anglo-Saxon foundations.
Pettigrew, after all, is not given to passion. The sensible scion of an honorable family, he has raised his only son, Roger, with an eye toward not spoiling him, and can only look on with dismay as Roger, now a London banker, puts materialism before the traditional values his father holds dear.
But the major does have a secret vein of covetousness: now that his brother is gone, he longs for his hunting gun, one of a matched pair that his father, he believes, always intended to be reunited.
Mrs. Ali, meanwhile, has her own family drama. Her nephew, Abdul Wahid, has fathered a charming little boy, George, with an unsuitable woman. But Mrs. Ali sees how much her repentant, and newly religious nephew loves George’s mother, Amina, and is willing to sacrifice her own happiness to unite them, if only the warring couple could make peace. Add in a village’s worth of busybodies, a smattering of new-money city folk, and a rare few sensible types, and the stage is set–at least for the annual golf club dance. With the humor of Wodehouse and a touch of James in the precise dialogue, the drama unfolds.
No, not much happens in Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, but in its own quiet way, it tells of a world of change. Under the guise of an old-fashioned novel, Simonson has crafted a tale of free spirits and the triumph of courage. It makes for a brave little book–a moral one, actually, that takes a stance on heroism and life in an era of observation as art–and it evokes the appropriately old-fashioned, if not sentimental response. Once one meets these characters, in all their specificity, one longs for a happy ending, or, at least, a just one. True to form, and without giving anything away, Simonson delivers, bringing her charming tale full circle with what the good Major himself might call the proper ending.
Clea Simon is the author of nine books, the most recent being the mystery Grey Matters. She can be found online at cleasimon.com