Thursday, March 17, 2011

Review: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

Summary: In the small village of Edgecombe St. Mary in the English countryside lives Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired), the unlikely hero of Helen Simonson’s wondrous debut. Wry, courtly, opinionated, and completely endearing, the Major leads a quiet life valuing the proper things that Englishmen have lived by for generations: honor, duty, decorum, and a properly brewed cup of tea. But then his brother’s death sparks an unexpected friendship with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the Pakistani shopkeeper from the village. Drawn together by their shared love of literature and the loss of their spouses, the Major and Mrs. Ali soon find their friendship blossoming into something more. But village society insists on embracing him as the quintessential local and regarding her as the permanent foreigner. Can their relationship survive the risks one takes when pursuing happiness in the face of culture and tradition? -- Random House

For the month of March, my book club decided to read MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND by Helen Simonson. I was thrilled because I had heard so many incredible things about this novel and I was looking for an excuse to drop all of my review commitments and read it. Because I tend to wait until the last minute to read my book club books, I already knew that most of the members of our group adored this book (or at the very least really, really liked it.) And while I did enjoy it, I definitely wouldn't go so far as to say that I loved it.

If I had to pinpoint why my feelings were less than ecstatic over this novel, I think it's because so many people told me how much they loved it -- bloggers, reviewers, and even my book club. I think my expectations for MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND were just too high -- unfairly high. I have a feeling if I had read this book awhile back (when I received the ARC), I would have really liked (and possible loved) it. Unfortunately, I sat on it and built these unrealistic expectations for it. I think there's a lesson in here somewhere for me....

It probably sounds like I didn't really enjoy this book, but that's not the case. I did like the story and the characters, and I definitely can understand the appeal of this novel. I found MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND to be a sweet story -- and very charming, and I did think the cast of characters (especially the Major and Mrs. Ali) to be very entertaining. I absolutely adored Major Pettigrew and all of his quirks, and I just found him to be so incredibly funny. Between his prim and proper manners and his under-the-breath comments about his son, I found him to be just delightful. There is no doubt that Major Pettigrew is one of the characters who will stay in my mind for a long time.

There were quite a few things about this novel that made it special to me. The character of Major Pettigrew was certainly one of them, but I also appreciated the author's writing style. I think she did a great job of capturing the essence of a small village in England. And I thought she did a marvelous job of infusing lots of humor into this story -- I swear I could see certain scenes running through my head just like a movie! But what I think she really excelled at was in how she demonstrated so many universal characteristics of human behavior. Through this delightful story, she managed to touch on racism, prejudices, loss, grief, disappointment, parent/child relationships, religious beliefs, and most importantly, love. So many recurring themes in this book were ones that everyone can relate to -- and I think that's the beauty of this novel.

There is one slight issue that I had with the book (if you can even call it an "issue".) The ending was a little bit strange for me -- I almost think it "jumped the shark." The entire pace of the story was pretty slow until the final scenes and then it was really sped up. I think the pace change was probably the author's intent, but I just didn't think it "fit" with the rest of the story. Some of the women in my book club agreed with me so I don't think I was entirely crazy with these feelings; however, I do think I am probably in the minority with most readers.

MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND was a pretty interesting discussion book and I do think most book clubs would find plenty to discuss. The only drawback I can see is that when there is a book that everyone loves, it's sometimes hard to get a good discussion going. You might know what I mean -- everyone just tends to say this part was great and we just agree with each other. There is a brief reading guide available, but we found that we only used one or two of the questions. Some of the topics you might want to explore include aging, loss, new beginnings, obligations, otherness, loyalty, honor, and discovering love at any age. Of course, another great thing about this book is that it lends itself perfectly to an English-themed party. Our hostess went all out and served tea and biscuits, along with some incredible almond bars. She even had an adorable centerpiece with an old-fashioned teapot!

I do recommend MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND. It is a very sweet story that is sure to entertain and even resonate with many of you.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this novel.

9 comments:

Dizzy C said...

I have this on my wishlist.

Thanks for the review.

It is the way sometimes, that we have high hopes for a book or film based on great reviews.....

but that is what makes us all different. :)

carol

Sandy Nawrot said...

I haven't gone back and read my review, but I suspect it would come across at the same temperature as yours. I liked it...it was sweet and quirky, but came nowhere NEAR my expectations after having seen the book on all the various magazines' best of lists and all the love from the bloggers. In fact, about 2/3 of the way through, I was wishing for it to be over.

bermudaonion said...

I gave this book to my sister for Christmas and it sounds like one she'd really like. She tends to like charming books more than I do. I'm not quite sure what that says about me.

Rebecca Rasmussen said...

I'm all about the charm, but I read this one before I was swept up in the hype, so I am certain that let the book be what it is :)

heyiwanttoreadthat.com said...

I'm reading this right now so I kind of skimmed your review in case there were any spoilers. I'm definitely enjoying it and I think charming is a good word to describe it. Sorry you didn't enjoy it more. It's the thing that worries me when a book has so much hype and expectations are so high. I hope you'll have better luck with your next book.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

How interesting that you thought the ending jumped the shark. I can see that, and yet I loved the ending because of the boost it gave to older protagonists! :--)

iwriteinbooks said...

This hasn't called to me the way other books have recently, which is weird since it seems to be a huge hit. I'm still interested in checking it out but it's not terribly high on the list. Thanks for the review!

Aths said...

I too get worried about a book once it's hyped around a lot. I worry the same about this book, so I'm hoping to pick it up later, when everyone is gushing about another book. Great review!

SZQ said...

Charming yes, but my dissatisfaction with the whole book was the anachronistic nature of the reference points. I couldn't decide in which decade the author wanted this book to occur. Partition (UK leaving India and Pakistan was 1947) Pakistani immigration to UK occured mainly in the 50's and 60's. Sandy with her short skirts and work in the fashion industry suggests the 60's, reference to using the world wide web suggests the 90's and the lights strung across the shore for the Millenium and the Queen's Jubilee suggests 2002. Really does a 68 year old man speak like "the Major" in 2002?? No but the 50's I could accept.The author's use of language and conversational deference to the the aristocracy (Lord Dagenham) takes me back to the 50's. And who still prefers to read Kipling in 2002???
Plus the author is 45yo and although she was raised in England she has been in USA for the last 20 years. Did anyone else feel like this?