Tuesday, August 10, 2010
This is as good as everyone says it is. Helen Simonson has written an old-fashioned story and interjected some surprisingly contemporary elements, with great success. In many ways this is a standard story of English village life, complete with a vicar, eccentric neighbors, the golf club, social climbing relatives, and featuring a retired major who wants nothing more than to be left alone to putter around in his garden. All the elements are in place for a 21st century Mapp and Lucia type of romp. But here is what stirs everything up: the major’s infatuation with the lovely Pakistani widow who runs the local convenience store. Suddenly, race relations in the new Britain are front and center.
Major Pettigrew is not always a sympathetic lead. His obsession with his late father’s antique shotguns forms a subplot that reveals a weaker side of his character. On the other hand, his growing love for Mrs. Ali, and his continued commitment to her, despite the horrified reactions of the village, and the objections of his and her own families, makes you cheer for him despite his occasional weaknesses.
Simonson raises issues about race and class with a deft hand. For example, here’s a knotty one: Major Pettigrew was born in Pakistan, son of a much-decorated British hero of the partition. Mrs. Ali was born and raised in England, daughter of a Pakistani professor at a British university. Who is the foreigner here? I love it when books ask questions like these.
(Book 35, 2010)