DISCLOSURE – I loved this book and am going to gush shamelessly about it. If you are looking for objective critique, you can spare yourself futile scanning through this post.
I really don’t understand why there aren’t more books like this – at least, not since Jane Austen finished Persuasion. Helen Simonson has the same light touch, the same gently satiric view of us mere mortals, that makes Austen such a joy to read. You know all the characters are flawed, but you forgive them because, let’s face it, they are the same flaws we all struggle against – avarice, timidity, insecurity, prejudice, pompousness, etc., etc.
Briefly, this is the story of Ernest Pettigrew, a retired British army officer who still prefers to be called “Major” – just as he prefers that all the manners and tradition of “polite society” continue. He firmly refuses to hoist himself into the 21st Century. The Major is a 68-year old widower who lives in the small country village of Edgecombe St. Mary. He falls in love with a widowed Pakistani shopkeeper, Mrs. Ali, and the rest of the novel follows the typical arc of romantic comedy. There are no great surprises here, but just as we love movies such as “When Harry Met Sally” and “Love Actually,” where we never doubt the outcome, it’s the journey that keeps us enthralled.
Perhaps it’s my own advanced age, but one of the joys of this book was watching love develop between two mature and sensible adults. Mrs. Ali’s warmth is the perfect foil to Major Pettigrew’s stuffiness, and their relationship builds so slowly that I suspect anyone under the age of 40 will give up on them by the third chapter. These are not people to fall into bed together on the second date. In fact, the second date is spent at the Major’s home, drinking tea and reading Kipling together. Even this seemingly innocent meeting is one over which the Major fusses and frets. When Mrs. Ali asks to see his garden, his carefully laid plans are thrown to the wind:
“Of course,” said the Major, grappling with the sudden change in program. He had been saving an invitation to see the garden in case of a sudden lapse in conversation later. If they toured the garden now, the tea might become stewed and undrinkable; and what would he do later, in the event of an interminable pause?
There are moments when this book is laugh-out-loud funny, as in this same visit to the garden, where the Major explains that a plant had to be moved from the front of the house because people were taking cuttings from it. Mrs. Ali asks:
“Yes, there was quite a rash of it,” he said. “Part of a larger crisis in the culture, of course. My mother always blamed it on decimalization.”
“Yes. It almost invites disaster, doesn’t it, when people are asked to count by ten instead of twelve?” she said, smiling at him. . .
However, Major Pettigrew is not just a foolish old fussbudget. He views the world with a realistic and jaundiced eye, wishing for the right, the proper human behavior, but often disappointed. His self-absorbed son, Roger, wants to buy a summer cottage. He asks the Major to come with him to meet the owner, who wants to sell the cottage to the “right” people. He tells his father:
“I need you to come with us and be your most distinguished and charming self.”
“So you would like me to come and kiss the hand of the poor widow like some continental gigolo until she is confused into accepting your meager offer for a property that probably represents her entire nest egg?” asked the Major.
“Exactly,” said Roger. “Is Thursday at two good for you?”
There are numerous obstacles to be overcome in order for the Major and Mrs. Ali to finally come together – the Major’s disapproving son, Mrs. Ali’s angry nephew and, primarily, the ethnic prejudice of the good people of Edgecombe St. Mary. As Ron Charles points out in his review for The Washington Post, “The white citizens of Edgecombe St. Mary, captured here with a nice satiric edge, are happy to encourage a class of immigrant laborers and shopkeepers, so long as they know their place. And for entirely different reasons, that separatist attitude is shared by the most conservative elements of the Pakistani community, which fear contamination from their materialistic neighbors.”
This provides the greatest obstacle, as both the Major and Mrs. Ali are people of substance who understand the value of community and family. They are not likely to jump into anything that flaunts their sense of propriety and they grapple, individually, with their competing emotions. When the crisis comes they meet it with the gravity you would expect of them. It is a testimony to Ms. Simonson’s ability to write characters who ring true that the reader recognizes the potential to tear this couple apart. So deeply grounded are they in their beliefs that we don’t question they would give it all up for the sake of doing what’s proper and correct, and it is exactly that quality that makes us care so much about the outcome.
This is a lovely, heartwarming book about people that you will come to love. I can’t recommend it highly enough.