by: Helen Simonson
I picked this book up on my last bookstore outing, off the Valentine’s Day display. I’m been thinking about reading it for a while (mainly because “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” is one of my favorite movies ever. Which has absolutely nothing to do with this book, except they both include the name Pettigrew and are set in England.)
Anyway, this is a fabulous novel. It’s the story of Major Pettigrew, retired, a widower who lives in a village in the English countryside. He develops a friendship with local shop owner and widow Mrs. Ali, and the book centers around that relationship. Much attention is also given to his relationship to the village in general and his son.
Several of the critics have referred to this as “Austen-like”, high but well-deserved praise. Simonson uses a dry, biting wit to examine racial and generational tensions, with beautifully developed characters and a quiet story the evokes rather intense emotions.
Generally, the book is poking fun at our inherent expectations of society, some common to both Americans and the British, some specific to English village. Reading as a southern American, much of the absurdity of the British-only cultural norms was exaggerated. I didn’t have to question my learned behaviors and reasonings; I just found it amusing that such behaviors were a thing.
The class prejudice in the book is way more complex than what I’m used to seeing as an American. In America, it’s talked of in terms of tax policies and educational opportunities. Socially, it would be the extremely poor and disadvantaged, especially those on governmental help, that would be expected to face prejudice. An upper class person prejudiced against the middle class would be viewed as spoiled and out of touch with reality. But in this book, at least, there was prejudice from the social upper class, without regard to economics, against the working middle class. The veiled, and then not-so-veiled, disdain for Mrs. Ali as a shopkeeper was especially interesting to me. My parents own their own successful shop, and I’ve never had a negative reaction when disclosing that, regardless of socioeconomic status of the person I’m talking to. In fact, the most common reaction is admiration.
Other themes of the book were more broadly applicable. Mrs. Ali is a British citizen of Pakistani descent, and the book deals quite well with a more subtle version of racial tensions. It quite excelled at showing people reasoning away their racism, showing a more subtle but prominent side of prejudice. The Major never has any overt moments of racism, but he often acquiesces to others’ flimsy concealed prejudice while feeling vaguely uncomfortable. Watching him become aware of how this attitude can harm those around him was one of my favorite parts of the story.
There was also a great deal of attention paid to the generation gap between the Major and his son. Parts of the gap were inevitable, due to changing technologies and social norms, and experiencing the Major’s confusion at this change was often bittersweet. If you’ve helped an older relative as they struggle to adapt to a changing world, the Major’s feelings were certainly resonate with you. Simonson does a wonderful job of depicting a perfectly competent person bewildered by the changes that come late in life.
The main focus of the book was the beautifully sweet love story between the Major and Mrs. Ali. It’s absolutely wonderful; it is both intensely joyful and heartbreakingly sad. There’s a certain dignified charm only found in the romance of those past middle age, and Simonson captures it perfectly. And since it’s not a romance novel, the ending could go any which way the author pleases. Though it touches on many a serious topic, the book feels like a light read and doesn’t demand a terrible lot from the reader in return for enjoyment of the story. Much like Jane Austen’s book, the story, writing, and humor are enough to read the books; all the social commentary, while wonderful, is extra. It is the perfect book to read in the sunshine, with a parasol and ducks in a nearby pond.
The characterization, plot, and writing in this story were all fantastic.
If you want a lovely story for Valentine’s Day, if you’re interested in a modern-day Austen-type novel satirizing and revealing uncomfortable truths about society, or if you’re a sucker for old people love, than this is the book for you. If you like your books about social issues to be heavy and hard-hitting, if you’re not a fan of (mostly) quiet stories with a touch of the absurd about them, or if you don’t enjoy British humor, than, alas, this may not be the book for you.