Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Having loved Helen Simonson's The Summer Before the War, I picked up this book because it was by the same author. Also, something about the title lured me, subtly promising a type of humour that delights me. That promise was fulfilled through both character and story.

Major Pettigrew's point of view is rendered flawlessly, his weak points shown cheek by jowl with his fairness, kindness and consideration. Jasmina Ali's intelligence and straight talk combine with her flashes of philosophical humour to make her thoroughly appealing.

The Major's social-climbing son and Mrs. Ali's sad and confused nephew are most engaging; I loved the heroic poignancy of Abdul Wahid's moment of self-assessment.

Pettigrew's almost daughter-in-law Sandy, his plotting neighbour, the bossy and squabbling village organizers and their passive husbands are portrayed with hilarious clarity.

Most of all, I adore the way this writer deploys language to draw attention to human details we can all relate to. An early laugh-out-loud moment was the Major's unreasonable bias against being driven by a woman. The reader just knows he's tempting fate to disabuse him of his peculiar ideas about women's "cautious creeping about at intersections, their heavy-handed indifference to gear changing and their complete indifference to the rearview mirror."

When he needs a ride, Mrs. Ali proves a fast, able and enthusiastic driver of her little blue car. Riding with her proves relaxing and pleasant. On the other hand, sitting in the back of his son's luxury vehicle with his girlfriend Sandy at the wheel makes Pettigrew feel like "a large baby in a rather luxurious pram." His relationship with his son has its ups and downs. His heart warms at a "flicker of filial affection" until an unfortunate remark causes it to go out "like a pilot light in a sudden draft."

Meanwhile, the village is planning a fete. Busybody Daisy Green, the Vicar's wife, had "seized the simple title of Flower Guild chairwoman and used it to endow herself with full nobless oblige." Daisy is also part of a gang of interfering women who try to push the widowed Major's casual friendship with Grace, and send her "to a luncheon date with him, all made up and forced into a hideous silk dress" that makes her look "as ruched and tied as a holiday pork roast."

"Following the accepted rituals," Daisy also visits the Major after his brother's death. Flanked by her sidekicks, she comes bearing a tin of rather revolting luxury biscuits that strike the Major as "tumescent." In the golf club, Daisy and other women in full organizing turn to "behatted heads" to to the gents and fix them with "steely eyes." Though Major Pettigrew may view others with a jaundiced eye, he is fair enough to judge his own behaviour as he does that of others, aware at the moment he stops just short of rudeness that he has "failed miserably to deliver a snub."

Major Pettigrew enjoys his fragrant walks in the countryside, where he tries to "let the colours of the landscape soak in and calm him." Preparing for another ride with Mrs. Ali, he considers whether it is safe to wear his tweed jacket in the rain; he doesn't want to cause her small car to "smell like wet sheep dipped in bay rum." Smell is for him an illuminating sense; indeed, in the lawyer's office he detects a complex whiff of "furniture wax and avarice."

Seen through the Major's eyes, the people of the village, including himself, are exposed in all their pettiness and misunderstanding. Hugh Whetstone tries "to ferret out the genealogy of everyone he met so he could use it against them later." Lord Dagenham is "a reduced kind of gentry, with all but one wing of the Hall let to a small boarding school" and most of his lands "lying fallow, producing only EU subsidy payments." When the Major, a sensitive man, is driven to extremes to escape from Grace, he feels so guilty for using the "dead relative excuse" on her that he loses his appetite for his golf club sandwich, which now seems to resemble "two rubber mats filled with horsehair."

The Major is full of non-violent contradictions. In part, he is a dreamer who harks back to a more heroic age. He is disillusioned by Dagenham's offer of a bribe, which evokes a "pale viper," even though it is "more subtle than some he had received in a career of overseas postings to places where such things were considered normal business." Later, disappointed by the village priest, he feels "no rage, only a calm and icy distance, as if this man, who had been both a friend and an adviser, was now talking to him from an ice floe in the Arctic."

His feelings for the charming widow are rendered with sweetness and humor. At the dance, he entertains "a fleeting hope that someone might knock her over into his arms." He fantasizes about offering her a duck shot at Dagenham's hunt as "a primal offering of food from man to woman and a satisfyingly primitive declaration of intent." Yet when they find themselves alone together, he nobly hands over "the nicer of his two pairs of pajamas," then volunteers to give her the bed and sleep on the couch.

Until the shocking conclusion, this story moves along at a soothing pace, demonstrating with poignant humour our myriad human viewpoints and the ultimate but bearable solitude of our individual lives.

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