Set in the fictional village of Edgecombe St. Mary in Sussex, England, Helen Simonson's endlessly entertaining first novel, "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" (Random House, 358 pages, $25), charts events in the life of 68-year-old Maj. Ernest Pettigrew.
The major is a widower living on his own in Rose Lodge, the home he had shared for years with his beloved wife. As the book opens he has just received the shocking news of his younger brother's unexpected death, and, more significantly, his life intersects for the first time with that of Mrs. Ali, a widow a decade younger who owns a grocery store in the village. Although the major is traumatized by the sudden loss of his brother, he is at the same time bemused with Mrs. Ali, a Pakistani woman with poise and attitude.
The invention of Maj. Pettigrew and the development of his relationship with Mrs. Ali are undoubtedly the book's foremost achievements. In the major, Simonson has conjured up a very complex and enigmatic character who personifies the quintessential British officer and gentleman. Yet we soon discover that an undercurrent of greed runs through this basically virtuous man.
The major's father, Col. Arthur Pettigrew -- while serving with the British army in India at the time of Partition -- had been presented with a pair of fine English sporting guns. The colonel bequeathed the guns to his two sons -- one gun each -- and now, with his brother deceased, the major must persuade his formidable sister-in-law to give him his brother's gun.
This is not his only burden. His other trial is interacting with his son, Roger, a young man who exhibits in spades a ruthless self-interest. Driven by ambition, Roger suffers from what has become known as the Lake Wobegon effect -- the tendency to believe that he is above average.
Still, the mere thought of Mrs. Ali makes the major lighthearted, and he actively pursues her. Because he is insightful, it comes as no surprise that Maj. Pettigrew quickly recognizes the unspoken hurt that Mrs. Ali endures. During her years in Edgecombe she has been the victim of condescension and prejudice. As the two spend time together, love and respect blossom.
Humor, too, tethers the couple. For example, when Pettigrew throws a flowery (but sincere) compliment at Mrs. Ali, she replies with her typical chippiness, "I have never heard anyone try to trowel such a thick layer of flattery on the wrinkles and fat deposits of advanced middle-age. "
Simonson's vivid narrative is more than a distracting read. The love story is underpinned with sound insights on racial and cultural issues, aging, religion, the generation gap and urbanization vs. respect for the environment.
Katherine Bailey is writing a book of literary essays titled "Versions of the Truth." She lives in Bloomington.