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Senior Correspondent

Character Writing and ‘Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand’

Character Writing and ‘Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand’

“Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” by Helen Simonson (New York

Helen Simonson's wry and witty novel 'Major Pettigrew's Last Stand' has a most endearing title character, a widower whose sedate village life in England abruptly becomes more complicated. When his younger brother Bertie dies suddenly, there is a prickly estate matter to be worked out with Bertie’s widow Marjorie, with whom the major does not get along.

He feels distanced from son Roger, his only child, who leads a flashy business life in London and has increasingly less time for his dad.

Mrs. Ali, a Pakistani shopkeeper in the village, becomes more than an acquaintance as she shares the major’s love for literature, particularly Kipling. She, too, has lost a spouse and feels the loss of that connection. Although this is Simonson’s first novel, she is a seasoned storyteller who keeps te action moving along and writes well as she does so.

The narrative is through the major’s eyes, and he provides a witty, often critical view of contemporary life. Descriptions of village customs, people, and social life are rendered in a caustic way. This sometimes gruff and opinionated widower has a tough time adjusting to the world today with social media, instant phone connections, declining manners, and a fading of such revered English customs as behaving in a gentlemanly manner, doing one’s  duty, and being honorable. His beloved village is threatened with rampant development by an American investor who hopes to buys up all the old homes and estates and replace them with new homes and adjoining shopping center. The major views him suspiciously, of course. He is especially hard on the group of local women, his late wife’s friends, who set the social standards for the village and dictate events in what he sees as a high-handed and bossy way.

Naturally his growing attraction, Mrs. Ali, is going to scandalize the village: “a Pakistani?” and “the shop-keeper?”

Simonson introduces other characters, including George, a precocious six-year-old; Abdul Wahid, Mrs. Ali’s disagreeable nephew and helper in the shop,who is unfriendly to the major, and Amina, an unconventional young woman not afraid to speak her mind. They play big parts in the story.

There are some hilarious scenes, as when the locals decide to put on a dinner dance re-enacting a prior incident between the British in India and the people under their rule. It’s an ill-conceived attempt at entertainment that turns wretched and yet is humorous.

This is one of many opportunities to laugh out loud in this entertaining book with its endearing main character. I hope there will be more from Ms. Simonson who has fashioned a delightful and thought-provoking contemporary tale.

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