Major Pettigrew's Last Stand--Helen Simonson

In one word--magnificent.  But you will need more than one word.  So--it is beyond comprehension that this is a first book.  The elements of story, character, setting are so tightly bound, so perfectly intertwined, and so absolutely in-tune with one another.  It is as if one had taken the fine-tuned sensibility of a Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer and wedded it to the intricate series of incident and entanglement (but NOT coincidence) that makes up a Dickens plot.

Major Pettrigrew experiences the trauma of losing his younger brother.  In the moment of realization he is receiving a visit from Mrs. Ali who has come to collect the back-pay for the newspaper subscription.  This encounter sparks the action, such as it is of the book. which includes Lords of the manor, at least four romantic entanglements, a golf club party, a raid in Scotland, and a harrowing battle to save a life  But.  Don't look for sword fights and duels and chase scenes and surprises of that sort.  The surprises in the book are emotional--they are the revelations the characters themselves receive as the story flows along.  And they are surprises that ring true--not merely for the story, but for any of us who are paying attention.  Ms. Simonson's theme is the vagaries and the startling self-knowledge that comes from loving and being loved.  And she is absolutely on-target here.

For the men in the audience who fear a prissy romance--do not fear.  Major Pettigrew is a Major in Her Majesty's Armed Forces in the classical vein.  He could have been plucked from the sometimes-cardboard canvas of an Agatha Christie novel. However, the resemblance ends with that possibility, because there is nothing whatsoever cardboard about Major Pettigrew. So you won't end up with a Regency story post-Heyer.  Yes, it is a love story, but think Pride and Prejudice not Passion Under the Persimmon Tree.

Another perfection in the novel is the way that none of the characters is perfect. Every one of them has faults and broken places in need of repair.  And we come to love them all, although we think we cannot.  At one point in my margin notes, I had written that it would be hard for Simonson to redeem this character from that particular act.  And she doesn't--the act remains, the redemption as such comes from the reader who grows in acceptance of the human failings of the characters.  The book itself acts like a lesson in the art of learning to love.

This is NOT a romance, even though it is a classic love story.  It is a story centered around love and learning to love and understanding what love is and what love means, and by that understanding coming to forgive oneself one's shortcomings and to forgive the shortcomings so obvious in others.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that properly read, this novel can be life-changing in the best possible way.

Ms. Simonson has put together something I have longed for for as long as I've been writing this, and probably as long as I've been reading serious fiction.  I have wondered where the successors of Austen and Fielding and Sterne and other such have gone.  I have wondered whether there is absolutely no room in the world of modern serious fiction for a positive view of humanity and human interactions.  Elinor Lipman gives us a glimpse of this from time to time.  But Helen Simonson has set it in stone for us.

Beautiful prose, beautiful characters, beautiful story, magnificent writing, wonderful theme.  As close to perfection as a book can come (although I could take a moment to point out a few flaws--so that hubris might not set in--I sha'n't do so--an author of this caliber is fully aware of every blot, every blemish, no matter how small).

It's a shame that this is a debut novel because now I have no great backlog of books to run to and treasure.  Now I'm in the unfortunate position of having to wait until Ms. Simonson blesses us with another.

Go and get this book, read it, treasure it, cherish it, encourage Ms. Simonson to get moving on the next. And let us hope that her educated heart can open yet another world for us.

Highest recommendation *****


  1. I detect something resembling head over heels enthusiasm here, which persuades me that Simonson's book ought to be moved to the head of my reading list. Thanks, Steven, for sharing your infectious passion for a book and writer I would have otherwise overlooked.

  2. Dear Steven, I couldn't agree more. This book made me happy.

  3. This was, indeed, a lovely book. I had a head's up on it just before it was released and read it a few months ago. I am so happy the book has been so well-received. It's a wonderful palate-cleanser for these days we live in.

  4. Dear Meg and Carolina D.

    Yes. You said it. It made me happy as well. I got to the end and said--perfect, absolutely perfect. And yet not all cozy and tied up and perfect in the sense of nothing bad--but perfect in the sense of the end of that particular book and that story--some win, some lose, some come together, so forth.


    Yes. I too would have overlooked it were it not for a chance review in a magazine I look over for reading possibilities. There's another out there that I haven't snagged yet. If I get it and it's as good as this, be sure that I'll let y'all know.

    It's just so nice to read something that can be taken seriously, but which ends on an up.

    A sensible, reasonable, liveable, realistic up--not a giddy up.



  5. Steven,

    After reading your review of this book, I went to the library and borrowed the book. Just finished the first five chapters and I do not want to stop reading (have to go to work). Enjoy Major Pettigrew as a character. This book reminds me of the book, "Nobody's Fool" by Richard Russo. In "Nobody's Fool", the two characters I enjoy are Sully, Donald Sullivan and Mrs. Beryl. One of my top five books to reread. Anyway, can't wait to get back to reading this story.

  6. Dear Mr. Prentiss,

    I'm so glad you are enjoying it. It is indeed a very enjoyable book first to last.




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