Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

17. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
by Helen Simonson
fiction, 2010
finished, 3/29/10

When you are a new parent, and if you are a reader, you will probably buy books about raising children. I found Dr. Benjamin Spock, Penelope Leach, Barry Brazelton, and the Ames & Ilg books that go year by year to be the wisest of counselors as I navigated this new territory of parenting, without a mother's guidance. They helped me through. They gave me confidence and humor. They made me feel like I could do this most wondrous work of bringing up children. When children become teenagers, there are still many guidebooks to give aid to worried parents. But once they go to college, or begin working, or join the military, there are no more books. The only phrase I've ever heard is 'the empty nest.' Well, yes, perhaps physically, but definitely not emotionally. I've found the years since my children graduated from high school to be the most trying, nerve-wracking, and rewarding of my life as a parent. And no one tells you. At least in my experience, there is no one writing about how to cope with adult children. Even the two words 'adult' and 'children' offer a clue to the difficulties. They are still our children, but they have become adults.

After a surprising coincidence, when I found myself reading this book, and watching the movie, Everybody's Fine, I began to think that perhaps literature and film may fill the gap and offer direction, because both of them deal with the subject of parents and adult children. Not only parents, but single father parents. I found it incredibly serendipitous. When there are adult children, there are also aging parents. Of course, not everyone is old when their children are grown but those of us who waited until our thirties to have these children suddenly find ourselves in our fifties or sixties. So, not only are we coping with our little babies all grown, but we are coping with the physical and emotional changes that come with older years.

In Everybody's Fine, Robert De Niro has a lung problem, for which he must take medication. His wife has been dead for several months and he wants to get all his children together. He finds in the course of the movie that things are not as he thought they were. At one point one of them tells the father that they don't tell him the truth about their lives.

In Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, the Major at sixty-eight is still in quite good physical health, but is lonely since the death of his wife six years earlier. He has just one son, but honestly that 'boy' felt like he was ten children. He was so incredibly self-absorbed, unkind, thoughtless, and selfish. He absolutely drove this reader crazy. His father loves him, and tries his best to make him happy, but that son does nothing in return.

So that is one facet of this excellent book - the father and adult son relationship. Another dimension of Major Pettigrew's life is a growing interest in a widow who keeps a grocery store in the village, Mrs. Ali who is ten years his younger. And she has her own troubles with the younger generation; not her children but her nephew who has moved in to the small quarters above the store, and tries to take over her life.
"It is a fact of life, I suppose, that the younger generation must try to take over and run the lives of their elders," said Mrs. Ali. "My life is not my own since my nephew came to stay. Hence, the dream of a cottage of my own has reawakened in my mind."

"Even in your own home, they track you down with the telephone at all hours," said the Major. "I think my son tries to organize my life because it's easier than his own - gives him a sense of being in control of something in a world that is not quite ready to put him in charge."

"That's very perceptive of you," said Mrs. Ali, considering a moment. "What do we do to counteract this behavior?"

"I'm considering running away to a quiet cottage in a secret location," said the Major, "and sending him news of my well-being by postcards forwarded on via Australia."

She laughed. "Perhaps I may join you?"

"You would be most welcome," said the Major, and for a moment he saw a low thatched hut tucked behind a gorse-backed hill and a thin crescent of sandy beach filled with wild gulls. Smoke from the chimney indicated a fragrant stewpot left on the wood-burning stove. He and she returning slowly from a long walk, to a lamp-lit room filled with books, a glass of wine at the kitchen table...
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is full of moments such as this.

There are other elements of life which are dealt with in this book. We see prejudice, in terms of both nationality and economic status. In addition to the adult children situation, there are other family problems, all too familiar to most people: jealousy between siblings, in-law concerns, and then the whole property dilemma. Who gets what and when? Do you sell off a future inheritance for cash now? What about the importance of 'things?' And there are worries about development in the little village.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is a story filled with everyday truths; ones that I rarely consciously think of, but certainly recognized as I read them in print.
It surprised him that his grief was sharper [his brother, younger by two years has just died of a sudden heart attack at 66] than in the past few days. He had forgotten that grief does not decline in a straight line or along a slow curve like a graph in a child's math book.
[speaking of the dawn chorus] those birds perform a miracle every morning and the world ought to get up and listen.

'The world is full of small ignorances. We must all do our best to ignore them and thereby keep them small, don't you think'

It was never a good idea to confide in people. They always remembered, and when they came up to you in the street, years later, you could see the information was still firmly attached to your face and present in the way they said your name and the pressure of their hand clasping yours.

He should have telephoned before arriving. The fiction that he was welcome to drop in at any time, because he was family, could only be maintained as long as he never took Marjorie at her word.
The book really encompases all the richness of life; the good, the not-so-good, the problems that can be solved and those which one must simply live with. It is utterly fair without judgments. It doesn't feel like the author had an agenda to promote. She tells the story and lets it flow with warmth and humor and deep humanity. I loved it beyond words.

I would like to mention how much I enjoyed the print.
This book was set in Caslon, a typeface first designed in 1722 by William Caslon. Its widespread used by most English printers in the early eighteenth century soon supplanted the Dutch typefaces that had formerly prevailed. The roman is considered a "workhorse" typeface due to its pleasant, open appearance, while the italic is exceedingly decorative.
I compare it to the
ITC Baskerville by Keystroke
of the Persephone books. I am so put off by the Baskerville that I almost can't read the books. The Caslon is so clear, so lovely, so easy on the eyes that I don't even think about it, whereas when I read the P. books, I'm always aware of the print and how much I don't like it.

And the cover is perfectly beautiful. It is complementary to the words inside.

Oh, and I must mention that this is Helen Simonson's first book!


  1. Oh! I'm so glad you enjoyed this book. It really was wonderful, wasn't it? In a quiet way, yet there was so much that happened. You did a wonderful job of highlighting aspects of it, the small touches that were universal ideas, and some lovely quotes.

    hurray! I'm always so worried when someone else decides to read a book on my recommendation. It sets me on edge.

  2. This sounds just awesome. I just reserved the audio version from the library. Thanks for the great review.

  3. I absolutely love your way with words and I also found myself drawn into your story and relating this book to your've sold me on this one Nan!!!

  4. And once again, my dear friend, you have written an exquisite review. I seriously think you should track down Ms. Simonson's email address and send her a link to this review. She would be most pleased!

    And you do know I'll be buying this book. :)

  5. What a wonderful review!
    I already adore the Major, and we haven't even met.

  6. Hi Nan: You won't believe this, but Major Pettigrew just arrived in our house the other day and is now sitting on my shelf waiting for me to finish the new Maisie Dobbs. I have heard nothing but good things about this book, so I look forward to a great read.

  7. This sounds like a book I'd enjoy reading! Is there a series or is it just the one about Major Pettigrew?

  8. What a great review! I'd already bought this book and was planning to read it over the weekend. Now I'm looking forward to it more thn ever.

  9. It's a lovely story, isn't it, but oh, that son!

  10. Raidergirl, I knew I would from your writing. I was positive. This doesn't happen very often. The last time was with the Guernsey book - I was certain I would love it and I did. Thank you so much!!

    Diane, I bet the audio will be wonderful. I wonder who narrates.

    Staci, what a nice thing to say. Thank you. Hope you can read it soon.

    Les, thank you so much!!

    Julie, I love what you wrote. He is a wonderful man. A real gentleman, an old-fashioned mannerly person.

    Donna, that's great! I'm waiting for Maisie to come in at the library. I'm first on the list!

    Librarian, this is her first book. I don't believe it would continue on as a series, though I'd love to spend more time with the characters.

    Call me madam, I know you will love this.

    Cornflower, yes!

  11. Oh....
    I just love your blog!
    You keep it so interesting and I never know what I will find when I go to Nan's Letters!
    Miss your tulips, but think your new header is great for baseball season.
    love your book reviews!
    Thanks for sharing,

  12. You are so nice, Joanne! Always encouraging. I never know what's going to be here either. :<) I'm so fond of the Ted Williams pic. I love the flaws which show its age.

  13. I absolutely love the way you did this book review. You drew me in by talking about children, then adult children and then made the transition to the book. So beautifully and skillfully done. You have a gift. I absolutely must read this book now.

  14. Margot, I am so very touched by what you wrote. Thank you.

  15. I thoroughly enjoyed your review of this book Nan,and I am sure it is one I would love to read.I have just checked and I'm pleased to say it is available at our library so it has been added to my to read list with others from your blog,some of which I have read and loved.


  16. Nan, so lovely. I have seen this book around, but I had no idea what it was about. Thanks for giving me such a clear picture. I also haven't seen Everything's Fine but it sounds like something I might like. We agree that the adult children stage is one that is quite interesting!! :-)

  17. Thank you, Patricia and Kay. I'm quite sure you will each enjoy this wonderful book!

  18. A lovely review Nan :0)
    Thank you

  19. I loved this book! And you have expressed so many of my thoughts brilliantly. I'm waiting for the new Maisie Dobbs.

  20. I loved this book too, and have passed it along to a friend. One of the best reads I have had in a good while. Highly recommended for all the reasons you mention in your excellent review.

  21. I've never even noticed the type in books. Either I'm not very perceptive or I've never run across 'bad' type. I'm going to have to start paying attention.
    I've found that my adult chiildren can be pains in the rear or my best friends; often at the same time!

  22. I have read several reviews of this book, but your review made me want to read it. Thank you. I agree with Les that the author would be really heartened by your lovely review.

  23. Like Donna, I'm just finishing a Maisie Dobbs (the latest one, The Mapping of Love and Death, the best yet, I think) and I shall certainly have to treat myself to Major Pettigrew. I read one poor review of it, but can't think on whose blog that was, or whether it was a reader review on Amazon. But most who have read it appear to love it and, I have to say, it sounds just my kind of book.
    I had no idea it was the beginning of the baseball season - just shows that something 'big' in one country hardly gets a look in in another! Here, it's Grand National Day, the big over-the-jumps horse race from Aintree. I might watch. On the other hand, it's a glorious spring day so I might just venture out into the garden instead!
    Margaret P

  24. And thank you, Val!

    Les, As well as the wonderful writing, you'll love looking at the cover on your shelf.

    Thank you, Common Weeder! Maisie should be out any day now!

    Kay, thank you, and I'm happy you loved it, too. I felt the same way that it was one of the best books I've read in ages.

    Debbie, I laughed right out loud at what you wrote to me!! I think in a way that if you don't notice the type it is a good thing; it means it is doing its quiet job.

    Sue, what a very nice thing to say! I'm so glad you are going to read it.

    Margaret, I can't wait for Maisie! Book impressions are so very personal - it is impossible to know what someone else will like. And ah, yes, baseball season has begun. I'm happy, happy. Isn't the Grand National 'National Velvet's' race?!

  25. Nan - here is my review

    I thought a quite lovely book and I look forward to the next one from this author

  26. Ah, I'm afraid you are causing me to spend money. I'm supposed to be refraining from buying books at the moment, but this sounded much too enticing.

  27. Kristi, well worth buying even in hardcover. There is so much beauty and truth in her words. Wonderful book.


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