Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Books Yay!: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson

I finished The Elegance of the Hedgehog in my bathtub, sobbing.  It was like a Lifetime movie in there, people.  Ever since then, I've been chasing the beauty of that book, and while I haven't found it yet, Amazon has recommended some good books that it thinks are similar, one of them being Major Pettigrew's Last Stand.

Major Pettigrew reminds me of a man standing on the edge of the advancing Nothing in The Neverending Story.  His wife has passed away, his neighbors are abandoning the British gentility which has always guided him through interactions with them, and his son is such a man of the modern age that he may as well be a different species.  On the passing of his brother, Major Pettigrew's family erupts into a display of poor behavior and entitlement unlike anything he has ever seen, particularly over the matter of his brother's hunting gun, which is one of a pair owned by the men's father and split amongst them to be passed down through the family.  They are a birthright, and it seems that the Major is the only one who still regards them thus.  As he struggles to make sense of this disappointment and retain control of the heirlooms, he must too manage a fledgling romance with Mrs. Ali, a beautiful, quiet widow who runs the shop near his home, and deal with the ugly striving of his son.

For what is essentially a romance novel, Major Pettigrew takes on a truly impressive number of difficult topics, and explores each in remarkable depth.  The overarching theme is one of cultural dynamics and how they shift.  Pettigrew's father's guns were a gift for his service in colonial India, and the Major's golf club wants to throw a colonial-India-themed gala to celebrate the event.  Not only do many of the members fail to understand why this is not really appropriate (white people glorifying colonialization!  Hooray!), but Simonson also shows us several ways that non-white people involved with the event choose to deal with the situation - one family sees it as a business opportunity, while Mrs. Ali is clearly uncomfortable, and so on.  The gala shows the hazards of glorifying times and behaviors that were dominated by the domination of other people, and it's easy to look down on those behaviors from our current time, and to brush off all of the old monarchic traditions that produced them.  But Simonson is not ready to let us discount tradition entirely.  Pettigrew's little village has caught the eye of developers, and their proposed atrocities would stabilize the shaky fortunes of the local Lord, whose economic footholds have grown less sure as modernity sweeps in and redistributes wealth from the aristocracy.  In view of the fuckery of the gala, one might be prepared to cheer this development as sweeping away the rotting vestiges of an oppressive structure, but Simonson shows us that doing so also threatens the community bonds built under the system, which tie people together and encourage them to care for the land and buildings and people amongst which they live.  It's not all bad, Simonson is telling us.

There's also an interesting look at the dynamics of Muslims living in England, as well as the differences in generations within the religion itself.  Mrs. Ali is a modest woman who is mindful of her religion even as she takes soft little steps outside some of its more hardline positions, but she must contend with her nephew, who comes to the shop to deal with the woman who is mother to his child.  He is extremely rigid, and has a difficult time dealing not only with his own family's trespasses but the behavior of those in the community at large.  This is all before we get to the mother herself, who is a rebellious, punky woman lashing out at both the restrictions of her religion and the prejudice that she encounters in the world around her.  It's a rich and lovely portrait of the decisions we all must make as religious people, and Simonson seats it beautifully in the context of English society, adding yet another layer of consideration to our view of these characters and the qualities they represent.

I don't want to tell you how it turns out for all of these people, because you should read the book on one of our remaining summer days, outside, in the sun, with a glass of iced tea.  It is in turns hysterically funny, incredibly sweet and crushingly sad, and the overall effect is of a beautiful story about the way we lived and live our lives.

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