I’ve already written about The Summer Before the War—which I read first (and which is, in fact, the more accomplished novel)—but I really enjoyed Helen Simonson’s novel-writing skills in Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (the New York Times calls it “funny, barbed, delightfully winsome storytelling”) and I think there’s a lot to learn from reading her. Indeed, the Times points out the “narrative, which is enjoyable even when it tootles along with mechanical efficiency, follows a three-act structure” and that the author “leaves these manipulations proudly visible.”
I could go on and on, but let’s look at what Simonson does particularly well:
- Dichotomies in theme
I’m one of those readers who believe that a novel rises or falls on its characters, and this novel has them in spades. Chief among them is the titular character, Major Pettigrew, an old-fashioned English gentleman forced to confront a world less genteel than he is. The beauty is in watching him encounter situations that push him further and further outside his comfort zone while remaining perfectly in character. He is surrounded, too, by a host of richly drawn personalities of various ages and cultural backgrounds.
Regarding the plot and subplot, make no mistake: this book is a wonderfully satisfying love story. But while we watch and wait for the romance to come to fruition—both characters being conservative types, after all—it is the intricately planned subplots that keep us turning the pages. In one, the Major having been promised a valuable hunting rifle upon the death of his brother, schemes to get it back when his widowed sister-in-law refuses to part with it. In another, Pettigrew befriends and then must offer advice to a young Muslim man (the nephew of the woman he loves), even though he is, culturally speaking, the least likely man on the planet to handle it. Every development in both the plot and subplots is beautifully foreshadowed; a student of the craft will relish them all.
Simonson’s comic timing is impeccable. (Even though she opens the story with news of a death, she leavens the scene with the Major dressed in the bright pink robe of his deceased wife.) And she finds the humor in even the most uncomfortable circumstances. When his son does business with a racist, Pettigrew objects, but the son demurs: “It’s called the real world. 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 all be?” But the Major shuts him down: “On a nice dry spit of land known as the moral high ground?” Honestly, I giggled all the way through this book.
Finally, what I liked the best were the unexpected thematic dichotomies: a white, Old World protagonist paired with a woman of color with an immigrant background, for example: race and class diametrically opposed. There are themes of fathers and sons; the old ways and new; old-fashioned and progressive; youth and age; friends and family; grief and laughter; change and refusal to change; a clashing of cultural mores—all set in an English village novel.
And it works.
The writing is delightful. The love story is very satisfying. You’ll sigh with pleasure. Study this!
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