One Last Stand--Major Pettigrew's

As you may have noticed by now, I'm not particularly good at book reviews.  I recognize that about myself, because for me a book review would need to be nearly as long as the book itself to do the book any sort of justice.  So I excel at long chains of notes with commentary--perhaps not deep and moving commentary--but thoughts I had while reading the book. 

Presently I'm in the throes of reading three really fine books--Click by Ori Brafman and Ram Brafman (about which more later), How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer (he of the wonderful  Frontal Cortex Blog), and Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson--a book I wouldn't have picked up on a bet, were it not for some kind words about it in a magazine book review.  And, oh, what I would have missed out on. 

Often reading literary fiction and most literature, I find myself wondering if it is impossible to make literature out of the light side of the human experience--so much of it is so uniformly bleak and miserable, or stark and awful, or monstrous and deformed, that I wonder whether Jane Austen is a fluke, or Tom Jones or Tristram Shandy or any number of other books from earlier on that seem to celebrate the lighter side of the human experience.

Major Pettrigrew's Last Stand is one of those books.  With a deft hand Helen Simonson steers us through a trauma in the major's life (the death of his younger brother) and into a deep understanding of a vanishing generation of English--a generation with a sense of propriety that sparked my own when young and still shapes (perhaps too much) my interactions with others.  (I can't write e-mails that lack a salutation and valediction, I tend to address people I don't know well as Sir and Ma'am, regardless of age with relation to me, etc.)

All of that said, this book captures some real moments for me and in the first 30 or so pages invoked and provoked real visceral responses to characters' actions.

from Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
Helen Simonson

When Mrs. Ali had left, she making her excuses for having invited herself into his home and he making his apologies for inconveniencing her with his dizzy spell, the Major donned his housecoat once more and went back to the small scullery beyond the kitchen to finish cleaning his gun. He was conscious of tightness around his head a slight burn int he throat. This was the dull ache of grief in the real world; more dyspepsia than passion.

For me, this perfectly summarized that first, shocked stage of grief--the phase after the dizzying impact of the news, when the world closes in upon one in all of its drained greyness and all that is left is an ache at the center of everything--a tightness in head, chest, throat--in short a dyspepsia not a passion.

And shortly thereafter, another visceral, gut-level emotional response.  The Major owns one of a pair of extremely valuable rifles--the pair had been split up by his father on his father's deathbed and it was his father's express will that when one or the other of the sons should die, the pair would be reunited to be passed down through the family. Here, the Major's son speaks to him about them.

source as above

"Listen, Dad, Jemima had a word with me about Uncle Bertie's shotgun," said Roger when they had a moment to sit down on a hard leather sofa to talk. He twitched at his lapel and adjusted the knees of his trousers.

"Yes, I was meaning to talk to Marjorie about it. But it's not really the time, is it?" He had not forgotten about the question of the gun, but it didn't seem important today.

"They understand perfectly about the value of it. Jemima is quite up on the subject."

"It's not a question of the money, of course," said the Major sternly. "Our father was quite clear in his intentions that the pair be reunited. Family heirlooms, family patrimony."

"Yes, Jemima feels that the pair should be reunited," said Roger. "A little restoration may be needed, of course."

"Mine is in  perfect condition," said the Major. "I don't believe Bertie quite took the time with his that I did. Not much of a shooting man."

"Well, anyway," said Roger, "Jemima says the marked is red hot right now. There aren't Churchills of this quality to be had for love or money. The Americans are signing up for waiting lists." The major felt a slow tightening in the muscles of his cheeks. His small smile became quite rigid as he inferred the blow that was to come. "So Jemima and I think the most sensible course of action would be to sell them as a pair right now. Of course, it would be your money, Dad, but since you are planning to pass it on to me eventually, I assume, I could really use it now."

I am not a man who relishes recourse to violence, but if I could reach into the book and strangle this horrid little toad of a son (whose horridity only increases in this early part of the book), I would do so gladly.  And thus, I am engaged.  I want to know that the Major gets his rifles and none of those hovering about the edges like buzzards see any sign of it.

And there are other moments--some wryly humorous, some laugh-out-loud funny.  I haven't finished the book, and I do plan to share as I continue reading.  But with my experience so far, I can't help but wish this book a larger audience.  And wish for more well-written fiction in a similar vein.  I could do with more levity in my serious fiction.  Because it is serious doesn't mean it need be so SERIOUS.

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