This book is a romance from start to finish, even if it's not your Harlequin-branded bodice-ripper (and not just because it's hard to rip a bodice when you have arthritic fingers). From the beginning, the Major and Mrs. Ali have a chance meeting, even if it is, in essence, a very depressing one. The Major, reeling from the death of his brother, almost passes out when Mrs. Ali comes to the door. It's quite the role reversal, too, with the man feeling faint and the woman swooping in to save him.
The Major gets to do some swooping in of his own at the end. We like to define the genre of "romance" using the very technical term "chivalric stuff," and the Major is nothing if not chivalrous. When he swoops in to save Mrs. Ali at the end, he envisions himself as "Don Quixote or Sir Galahad" (21.1). You don't get much more chivalrous, heroic, and romantic than that.
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand would be a good title for a zombie novel. There are no zombies here, although some of the old women in town are just as scary. So what exact is Major's Pettigrew's "last stand"?
He stands up for himself and what he believes in a few times during the course of the novel. He manages to reunite his family's shotguns. He stands up to his snotty son, Roger. He channels "Don Quixote or Sir Galahad" (21.1) and rescues Mrs. Ali. Perhaps a better title would be Major Pettigrew's Last Stands, plural?
His last-last stand could be one of two things, depending on what your definition of "stand" is. (Or your definition of "last.") He stands up to Abdul Wahid on the cliffs, preventing the young man from committing suicide. "Either shoot me or choose to live yourself" (24.124), he says. He also literally stands up to walk Mrs. Ali down the aisle in the epilogue.
So what is his last stand? And does this mean that he won't have anymore "stands" after the book is over?
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is a charming little love story about a man dealing with conflicts everyone deals with as they age—old age vs. youth, modernity vs. tradition, and shotguns vs. old women with knitting needles.
Folks, the ending to this book is insane. First, the Major performs a dramatic rescue, saving Mrs. Ali from her husband's family, a family that wants her to live a traditional—i.e., boring—life, instead of shacking up with some white dude. Then, they literally shack up, getting it on Golden Girls-style in a shack in the woods.
When they get back to town, Amina is supposed to be married to Mrs. Ali's nephew, Abdul Wahid. Except a crazy woman related to Abdul Wahid has stabbed Amina with her knitting needle. Abdul Wahid takes the old woman away, and the two go to the cliffs where Abdul Wahid plans to throw himself into the ocean. A suicide-prevention guard tries to stop him, but the old woman scares him away, giving us the book's greatest line: "Some old lady with a weapon and a foul mouth threatened to stick me in the gonads" (24.21).
So the Major throws down with the old woman. It's knitting needle vs. shotgun, a bloody rock-paper-scissors on cliffs above the sea. The old woman is the ultimate traditionalist, but she's part of a tradition in which people should just die instead of living in sin. To anger her, Mrs. Ali tells her about all the hot hot sin she and Major got up to in the woods. The woman goes wild, so the Major SMACKS HER IN THE HEAD WITH HIS SHOTGUN. It's crazy. Mrs. Ali and the unconscious old woman are taken away, and it's up to the Major to talk Abdul Wahid down.
He does, but not before the gun goes off and accidentally shoots the Major in the leg. The Major's okay, but the gun disappears into the ocean forever. The Major proposes to Mrs. Ali in the hospital, and, even though no one in the town approves of this scandalous interracial union, he marries her soon after. Modernity triumphs. We think they'll live happily ever after… just no knitting in their presence, thank you very much.
The Major loves his village. The people in it, not so much.
At the beginning of the book, the Major goes for a few walks and soaks in the quaint country atmosphere. "The village never ceased to give him pleasure" (3.35), he thinks, looking at beech trees, clover, Eunice the sheep, and "improbably colored petunias" (3.25). It's charming, the kind of place where all the homes have names. The Major's house is "Rose Lodge."
But you'll notice he doesn't mention the people there at all. In fact, by the end of his book, he remarks about the country club in town, "'The club and its members can go to hell,' said the Major, spluttering in anger" (20.111). If a plague wiped out everyone in Edgecombe St. Mary except the Major, Mrs. Ali, Grace, and Alec (and maybe Alice) we think the Major would feel just fine about that.
With his fondness of the traditional countryside, the Major shouldn't like the store in town. It has a garish orange plastic sign. It's called Supersaver SuperMart. Two supers. But he does like it, only because it's run by Mrs. Ali, whom he likes.
The store itself is a lot like her. It's a little more modern than the rest of the town, and it doesn't quite fit in. The other townspeople don't like it, or her, but they tolerate it, and her. They barely notice its existence, but they probably wouldn't be able to survive if the store was gone.
When Mrs. Ali does leave, the whole mood of the store changes. Not only does the Major miss her, but the crazy old woman who replaces her is well, crazy and mean. Thankfully, almost everything is restored to normal at the end.
Major Pettigrew's favorite author may be Rudyard Kipling, but Helen Simonson is lot easier to read than Kipling, mainly just because her story is modern and doesn't feature any talking animals with difficult-to-pronounce names. Set in the present, Major Pettigrew is told with a straightforward, accessible voice. Plus, the Major has a dry British sense of humor, occasionally spouting off in a way that would make even the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey crack a smile.
Some dead people leave their children money, or a house. Or they leave their kids nothing and leave everything to the family cat. Well, the Major's dad left behind two hunting shotguns. Not just the kind of shotgun you walk into Wal-Mart and buy, but antique shotguns manufactured by famed gun-maker E. J. Churchill. They're worth around "a hundred thousand pounds" (1.15) if sold as a pair. Not as much if sold apart.
Not that it matters: the Major would never dream of selling them. When Bertie, his brother, dies, the Major wants the guns reunited. He wants to keep them together as a family heirloom, to… to what? He can't pass them on to Roger when he dies, because Roger will sell them. Bertie's daughter, Jemina, wants to sell them, too. This is galling to the Major. He values tradition more than money, and he sees these guns as family history.
It's a history he wants to keep, maintain, and nurture. He has a ritual of cleaning the gun which is quite sensual. "He dipped his fingers in the hot oil and began to rub it slowly into the burled walnut root of the gun stock. The wood became silk under his fingertips" (1.38). Bertie did not feel the same way. His gun is neglected, compared to the Major's. "They looked nothing like a pair. His own gun looked fat and polished. It almost breathed as it lay on the slab" (8.13). The Major's gun is still alive, while Bertie's is dead, just like Bertie.
The guns, though, end up being kind of a red herring. The Major lends Roger his gun, anyway, and takes Bertie's to rescue Abdul Wahid from the knitting-needle-wielding maniac (we are not making this up). In a freak accident, the gun goes off, shoots the Major, and both fall over the cliff. The Major is saved, but the gun washes away.
Even though the Major spent most of the book fighting over and fretting over this gun, he doesn't take the loss that hard at all. For one thing, it's not his gun, anyway. Having the two guns together won't reunite his family or bring his brother back. He can't rewrite history. So the Major stops focusing on the gun, and devotes his attention to Mrs. Ali and his future.
The party theme chosen for the annual town bash is "An Evening at the Mughal Court." All the (mostly white) townsfolk will wear saris and pretend to be Indian. The only thing it's missing is brownface.
At the party, there will be a ceremony honoring the Major's father called "COLONEL PETTIGREW SAVES THE DAY" (16.120). The story is that Colonel Pettigrew saved a maharajah's daughter on a train, and the beloved white savior was rewarded with the guns the Major now possesses.
By having this party and reenacting this event, the townspeople are basically endorsing imperialism, without seeing how this might be offensive to some people, like Mrs. Ali. Not that they care, really, because she's just the help, after all. In fact, Mrs. Ali's not even Indian; she's Pakistani, and born and raised in England. But the townspeople don't care about that, either. She's brown, and that equals Indian in their minds.
For this reason, Mrs. Ali and her friend Mrs. Rasool adopt an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" mentality and help out Grace to plan the party and hopefully minimize anything egregiously offensive. Mrs. Ali says, "Between the three of us, perhaps we can save the Mughal Empire from once again being destroyed" (8.121).
Of course things go wrong. Mrs. Rasool's father-in-law starts yelling at the party, "You make a mock of a people's suffering" (17.113). This offends Daisy, who is upset because it's ruining her lovely party, and Amina, who put a lot of effort into the choreography to make it authentic. She says, "I worked like crazy to make a real story out of this piece" (17.148). Abdul Wahid stands up for the old man, saying, "Your father-in-law spoke nothing but the truth. They should be apologizing to him for making a mockery of our land's deepest tragedy" (17.147).
The party is pretty much over at that point, and the Major doesn't even get the award to be presented to him during the ceremony. Not that he cares: it is at the party that the Major realizes this tradition, which isn't all that honorable to begin with, is far less important than Mrs. Ali's feelings. He chooses her over tradition.
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is brought to you by the letter.
That's not a typo. It's not brought to you by the letter M or the number 3 or anything like that, but it does have three scenes centering around an actual letter. Handwritten ones, too—not even letters typed and printed on the computer. For all we know, they even sealed them with a wax stamp.
The first letter is a letter from the Major to Lord Dagenham's people. "I shall write a stern letter to the planning officer" (12.50), he says, and that's what he does. That letter is pretty inconsequential. Dagenham does receive it, but he doesn't really care about the Major's dissenting opinion.
Next, Mrs. Ali wants to write a letter to her husband's family, explaining the situation between Amina and Abdul Wahid. But at the same time she's afraid to: it could change not only their lives, but her life. She's written it, but has been carrying it around. "A letter unposted is a heavy burden" (14.35), the Major says, and he takes her to mail it. She does, and her mailing of the letter is in a paragraph set apart from the rest of the chapter, emphasizing the importance of it.
Finally, when the Major swoops in to rescue Mrs. Ali at the end, he wonders why she hasn't written. "But I did write, several times" (21.54), she says, and they realize that her brother-in-law, Dawid, has been hiding her letters. These old folks need to learn to text.
This being a quaint British novel, tea is a BIG FREAKING DEAL. It's served many times throughout the book. Mrs. Ali serves the Major tea in the first chapter. Then the Garden Club brings their own tea bags to the Major's house in Chapter 3. (How rude.) Next, Marjorie's tea "immediately began to give off a smell like wet laundry" (7.12). (Gross.) The Major later invites Mrs. Ali over for "just a cup of tea and a chat" (8.1)—but, of course, it's never just a cup of tea! He frets over the proper tea service to use as though his life depends on it.
And for the Major, it does. He is a very traditional man, and his life is tied to his customs. If he doesn't abide by customs, what does he have?
We're just gonna say it again, though. Teatime is the classic, quintessential, defining social custom for these village Brits. There's tons of etiquette involved, and everyone is watching you all the time to make sure you don't mess it up. So whenever these people sit down for a nice cuppa, you know that there are ten trillion things going on at once.