Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

I received Major Pettigrew's Last Stand as a gift from one of my oldest friends, a fellow bibliophile with exquisite taste in literary gift giving. She said she hoped it would give me "a break" from what I had currently been reading. It is true, my voyeuristic tendencies had led me on a memoir binge of people dealing with mental illness, death or dysfunctional childhoods. Compared to the gristly details and intense inner turmoil that I was devouring, her gift seemed almost quaint. It is the story of an aging man: a relic of a vanishing culture in which honor, family and properly brewed tea are of utmost importance. As Major Pettigrew deals with the loss of his brother and the inevitable subsequent fallout, he forges a friendship with Mrs. Ali, the Pakistani shopkeeper from the village.

If I had expected the Major to be a cranky, taciturn old man I was very much mistaken. Rather, he is funny and empathetic, beholden to the decorum of his youth in a world that often rewards singular self interest and economic growth. However, his mindfulness toward propriety does not prohibit him from reverently appreciating the companionship of Mrs. Ali, a kindred spirit in many ways. Their amity is strengthened through mutual loss and a love of literature.

Author Helen Simonson explores the effect of death and aging in a way that feels sensitive and true. I empathized with the villagers' struggles as progress rears its (ugly? neccessary? lucrative?) head in the form of overpriced residential development. Major Pettigrew's drily astute observations are funny and poignant. Rather than seeming an antiquated curmudgeon, he warrants respect and admiration. Mrs. Ali is both strong and sensitive. As the Major and Mrs. Ali navigate their way through a myriad of emotionally complex situations, I found myself wishing I could hug them, write an encouraging letter, or at least make them a cup of tea. While the book is at times light and humorous, I ached for our protagonists and each of us as we face the gradual, inevitable process of aging and loss. Simonson reminded me that sometimes, comprehensive human truths are most profoundly and humanely displayed in novels. As I finished Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, I was reluctant to let them go.

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