By Ron Charles
Wednesday, March 3, 2010; C04
MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND
By Helen Simonson
358 pp. $25
With two months till Mother's Day, there's no excuse for another last-minute FTD bouquet of dyed carnations: Get Mom a copy of "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand," by Bethesda writer Helen Simonson. This thoroughly charming novel wraps Old World sensibility around a story of multicultural conflict involving two widowed people who assume they're done with love. The result is a smart romantic comedy about decency and good manners in a world threatened by men's hair gel, herbal tea and latent racism.
Ernest Pettigrew -- that's Major Ernest Pettigrew, to you -- insists on "careful, impeccable behavior." The retired British army officer sees himself as a lone defender of responsibility and tradition, which means that he's in a constant state of repressed irritation. In fact, he's a walking thesaurus of irritation. We see him annoyed, dyspeptic, displeased, disapproving, disappointed, dismayed, horrified, outraged, angry, appalled, exasperated, resentful, wincing and flinching! But "I was raised," he says calmly, "to believe in politeness above all," and watching him hold to that rule even when he's convinced that "everyone is a complete idiot" is a constant source of comedy in these pages.
Alone since the death of his wife six years ago, Major Pettigrew moves his stiff upper lip only to extend brief courtesies or -- when someone especially merits it -- sarcastic jabs. If Simonson can keep this up, she could be heir to the late John Mortimer, and if the "Masterpiece Theatre" people aren't already sending out casting calls for Major Pettigrew, they should get a move on with decorous haste.
The story opens with fresh grief, and it's a testament to the depth of Simonson's comic sense that she always keeps one foot planted on the tragic side of life. Just moments after Major Pettigrew receives a call that his younger brother has died, the doorbell rings. Mrs. Ali, a Pakistani widow who owns a small shop in the village, has come to collect the newspaper bill. As a rule, the major believes "it was never a good idea to confide in people," but when he blurts out the news of his brother's death, Mrs. Ali leads him into the living room, fetches him a cup of tea and speaks gently to him about her own raw sorrow.
It's a perfectly drawn, delicate encounter, full of sympathy and tact, with none of the lachrymose confessions that Major Pettigrew abhors. Even as he makes preparations to visit his bereaved (and horrid) sister-in-law, "he acknowledged a notion that he might wish to see Mrs. Ali again outside of the shop, and wondered whether this might be proof that he was not as ossified as his sixty-eight years, and the limited opportunities of village life, might suggest."
The gentle, reticent affection that develops between these two older people from different worlds is immensely appealing. They continue to call each other "Major Pettigrew" and "Mrs. Ali," and for most of the novel their simmering passion leads them into nothing more unseemly than reading Keats together, but even that familiarity rubs up against the prejudices of local busybodies. For all the pride Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali take in being independently minded, they share a deep regard for decorum and respectability that's not easily assuaged.
Before moving to the United States two decades ago, Simonson grew up in a small English village, and she draws on that experience to marvelous effect in her re-creation of the beauty and prickliness of life in Edgecombe St. Mary. It seems at first a place out of time -- hawthorn and beech trees, sheep feeding on clover, "cradled fields full of late rye and the acid yellow of mustard." The community fancies itself "a utopia of multicultural understanding," but as the story develops, we see that the village has a rather more complicated attitude about how good citizens from different ethnic groups should interact. The leading town figures consider it a bold act of ecumenism to hold a hymn sing with the Roman Catholics. 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.
Simonson sets several interconnected subplots in motion that explore the complexity beneath the surface of this idyllic little village. Armed with an unimpeachable sense of righteousness, Major Pettigrew plots to retrieve a valuable gun from his late brother's estate without appearing -- to himself or others -- to plot anything untoward. Mrs. Ali labors under the conservative demands of her late husband's Muslim family, who expect her to quietly turn over her shop and retire to appropriate invisibility. Real estate developers threaten the ancient design of the town; Major Pettigrew's shockingly shallow son hopes to cash in on the deal. And all these disparate crises come crashing together at the club's annual dinner-dance with an ill-conceived "Mughal Empire" theme, a hilariously choreographed evening of romance, drunkenness, racial tension and violence.
When depicted by the right storyteller, the thrill of falling in love is funnier and sweeter at 60 than at 16. The stakes are higher, after all, and the lovers have stored up decades of peculiarities and anxieties. With her crisp wit and gentle insight, Simonson is still far from her golden years (she's only 46), but somehow in her first novel she already knows just what delicious disruption romance can introduce to a well-settled life.
Ron Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.