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Major Ernest Pettigrew, protagonist of “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand: A Novel,” the debut book by Helen Simonson, is retired and living in the cozy village of Edgecombe St. Mary in the English countryside. At 68, the widowed Major is a tradition-bound English man who prefers a style of extreme correctness and winces when not addressed by his proper title.
Major Pettigrew and his son, Roger, have grown apart. An ambitious man constantly working on “deals,” Roger scoffs at his father’s outdated ideas. Roger welcomes to the village American developers who will modernize it; there is money to be made. The Major is concerned about attempts by relatives he perceives as greedy to sell a valuable family heirloom.
As the story opens, the Major has just learned of his brother Bertie’s death. Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the Pakistani shopkeeper from the village, comes by his home, Rose Lodge, to collect for newspaper delivery and pay her respects. She finds the Major grieving for his brother. Ill at ease in her presence, Major Pettigrew takes note of the widowed shopkeeper who has been blending his tea in her shop for the past decade.
This particular day she offers to make tea for the Major. An unlikely and unexpected friendship is sparked as the two are drawn together, perhaps by common interests and educational backgrounds and a shared love of literature, as well as by the deaths of their spouses.
As his friendship and fascination with Mrs. Ali deepen, Major Pettigrew awakens to a larger world. He has fallen in love at last. Mrs. Ali is gracious, educated, cultured, but her Pakistani heritage brands her.
This social satire explores class, race and cultural issues and approaches the subjects of age and religion and the clash between modernization and tradition with sensitivity and skill. The interconnected subplots explore the complexity of life beneath the surface of a seemingly idyllic English village.
Ms. Simonson, who grew up in East Sussex, has lived in America for more than 20 years.