Friday, July 16, 2010

A grown-up romance

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson, is a lovely, sweet story.  Widowed Major Pettigrew (retired) is still trying to absorb the news that his brother has just died when shopkeeper Mrs. Jasmina Ali - also widowed - comes by to pick up the newspaper money.  The unlikely pair strike up a friendship bolstered by a mutual love of literature and a mutual sympathy about dealing with relatives.  In the Major's case, it's a shallow son and a materialistic sister-in-law.  In Mrs. Ali's case, it is the conservative members of her late husband's family and their assumption that she will hand over control of the shop to her nephew and go back to Pakistan.
As we watch the Major struggle with his instinct to hide his new friendship from the judgmental residents of Edgecombe St. Mary, Simonson lightens up the serious thread of racism and class prejudice with a lot of dry humor.  The Major and Mrs. Ali are such sympathetic characters - even with their faults - that you can't help keeping your fingers crossed that they will be able to rise above the petty expectations of their families and neighbors.
In fact, many of the characters seem to be struggling against other people's expectations.  An illegitimate child, a woman on the brink of spinsterhood, a career woman who wants a family, and a young man caught between piety and love; all these people flesh out the story and make Major Pettigrew's Last Stand a very enjoyable romantic tale about starting over.

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