After reading The Year of Magical Thinking, and after having a candid but painful and raw conversation about the book during our October meeting, I promised the Thursday Night Book Club that our November book would be an antidote to Joan Didon's award-winning memoir. On Thursday, November 16th, the book club met to discuss Helen Simonson's novel, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. Set in East Sussex, England, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is the story of Major (retired) Ernest Pettigrew, who lives in the small village of Edgecombe St. Mary and, as the novel opens, has just learned that his brother has died. The news inadvertently causes Major Pettigrew to form a friendship with Mrs. Ali, the Pakistani owner of the village shop. As their friendship develops into something more, the Major and Mrs. Ali must contend with the disapproval of their families and the discomfort of their neighbors. The many charms of the novel lie in its optimism and in its faith in the transformative possibilities of courtesy and kindness. At heart, the novel is a fully realized morality tale, a study of modern manners vs tradition, and an examination of racial and cultural issues, religious tolerance and the power of love to overcome obstacles. At one point, the Major's difficult son Roger notes: "If we refused to do business with the morally questionable, the deal volume would drop in half and the good guys like us would end up poor. Then where would we be?" The Major responds: "On a nice dry spit of land known as the moral high ground?"
Helen Simonson was born and raised in England. After graduating from the London School of Economics, she moved to the United States and began a career in advertising. She married and had two sons, and after several years as a stay at home mom, she signed up for a writing workshop at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, which took Simonson five years to write, started in that workshop. The book was a New York Times bestseller and an Amazon Best Book of the Month and has been translated into almost 20 languages. Simonson's second novel, The Summer Before the War, was published in 2016. She and her family have lived in Brooklyn for over 30 years.
With very few exceptions, the book club members were delighted by the novel. One participant said that she had read the book 6 times, and that it never failed to boost her spirits when she was feeling low. Several members talked about the Major's development over the course of the novel, noting how he began to speak out more against his neighbors' prejudice and small-mindedness. We spent some time dissecting the three pivotal events of the story: the annual country club dance, Lord Dagenham's duck hunt and the climatic scene that gives the novel its name. People shared their favorite quotes. There was a lot of laughter. But there was also an acknowledgement of how much tenderness and poignancy the novel contained. Both the Major and Mrs. Ali are widows, and their grief and loneliness lie just below the surface of their everyday lives. As Mrs. Ali remarks to the Major at one point: "'It is very dislocating.' Her crisp enunciation, so lacking among many of his village's neighbors, struck him with the purity of a well-tuned bell. 'Sometimes my husband feels as close to me as you are now, and sometimes I am quite alone in the universe.'" Our understanding of this undercurrent added to the joy we felt when the Major and Mrs. Ali found each other. As the Major realizes, "It was precisely Mrs. Ali who made the world a little less anonymous. She's made him a little less anonymous."
Join us at 7 pm on Thursday, December 21st when we will be celebrating the holiday season and discussing Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O'Nan. Copies of the book are available at the Information Desk.
According to Barnes & Noble, the day before Thanksgiving is the busiest reading day of the year. I hope you all have a great book to read. Happy Thanksgiving!