A good book is like the perfect fruit tart; how juicy the filling, how flakey the crust depends not only on using the freshest ingredients but also on the deft hands of the baker. In her debut novel, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, Helen Simonson crafts an enchanting tale, brilliant in its simple yet profound insight into human nature - a light and crisp perfection. Her characters etch themselves into your head and heart, lingering long after the last page has been savored.
Major Pettigrew, resigned to the fact that the happiest years of his life have passed, resides in the small English village of Edgecombe St. Mary. A stately widower of 68, the Major has lived his life with propriety; honor and duty to family and country rule the day. He is first introduced to us wearing his deceased wife's housecoat, which he puts on from time to time for the comfort that it brings. Mrs. Jasmina Ali, owner of the small grocery store in the village, comes to collect for the newspaper delivery, and finds the Major distraught, having just learned that his only brother has passed away. Guiding him to a chair, Mrs. Ali offers to fix some tea. The Major recalls that she is a recent widow, her husband having died of a sudden heart attack a little over a year ago.
"'It is very dislocating,' she said. Her crisp enunciation, so lacking among many of his village neighbors, struck him with the purity of a well-tuned bell. 'Sometimes my husband feels as close to me as you are now, and sometimes I am quite alone in the universe,' she added.
'You express it perfectly,' he said. They drank their tea and he felt a sense of wonder that Mrs. Ali, out of the context of her shop and in the strange setting of his own living room, should be revealed as a woman of such great understanding. 'About the housecoat,' he said."
Edgecombe St. Mary with its traditional stone houses, rose gardens and open fields seduces us; we feel the earthy dampness, inhale its fragrance. We understand the deep and emotional connection that belonging to such a place evokes.
"He liked the clover, evidence of the country always pressing in close, quietly sabotaging anyone who tried to manicure nature into suburban submission... Below him, the Weald of Sussex cradled fields full of late rye and the acid yellow of mustard. He liked to pause at the stile, one foot up on the step, and drink in the landscape. Something - perhaps it was the quality of the light, or the infinite variety of greens in the trees and hedges - never failed to fill his heart with a love of the country that he would have been embarrassed to express aloud."
Not much changes here from one generation to the next, but such idyllic paradise comes with a price. Anonymity is nonexistent, opinion and commentary plentiful. It is both exclusive and inclusive depending on who you are. Edgecombe St. Mary is the ultimate metaphor for life itself, rarely black and white but mostly shades of grey. How do we decide what to hold on to and what to cast aside? Such is the dilemma that Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali both struggle to reconcile. Sometimes, just when we believe we have life all figured out, along comes an ah-ha moment, a chance to jump the line and change direction. Suddenly faced with possibilities once never imaginable, the anguishing choice is between staying on the tried and true path worn comfortably smooth or taking the new unfamiliar one, bumpy, muddy and leading who-knows-where.
Helen Simonson masterfully breathes life into Major Pettigrew, Mrs. Ali and the others using lyrical prose to create a tale so colorful, so rich, that I deeply regretted reaching the last page of their adventure. This autumn-of-life love story - messy, funny, complicated and filled with the promise of possibility no matter what your age - is not to be missed. And like all good things, including fresh fruit tarts, the memory of enjoying it will make you smile whenever it comes to mind.
This review was originally published in March 2010, and has been updated for the December 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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