August 30, 2010

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

I bought MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND by Helen Simonson after a friend read it and then told me over and over that she thought I'd really like it.

Usually this is what happens when I get a book recommendation: I say, "Oh, yes, I've been wanting to read that" or "Oh, I haven't heard of that, it sounds interesting" (the case in this situation). I dutifully add the title to the infinitely long list of books I want to read. A year later, the recommender asks if I ever read that book. I didn't. I sheepishly explain about the size of my list. I don't explain that I never actually read the books on the list. The books I read are ones that somebody hands me, or that some particular whim convinces me I must read immediately, or that I hear about right before I decide there's a compelling excuse to make a book purchase despite the hundreds of books on my shelf that I've never read. It's all a bit of a problem.

Several previous recommendations from this particular friend have gone unheeded in this way, and MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND was similarly destined for the black hole of the list, except it happened that the third or fourth time my friend brought up the book, I was about to go on a trip. And going on a trip is one of the compelling excuses to buy a book. Never mind the crisp, newly purchased books still left unread from my last trip. This was a perfect opportunity to make my first Kindle purchase and try reading a book entirely on my phone. (The last ebook was free and read mostly on my computer, you see.)

The small screen reading experience was so convenient that I'm deciding what ebook I'm going to buy next, and MAJOR PETTIGREW was so much fun that I can't wait for Helen Simonson to put out another book. My friend's recommendation was right on.

The novel's protagonist, the retired, widowed Major Pettigrew, lives in a small English village where everyone knows each other's business. When he starts a friendship with Mrs. Ali, the widow who runs the village shop, everybody around the Major lets it be known that they consider her an inappropriate companion due to her class and race. There's much talk of propriety among the Major's insufferable family members and so-called friends, but he's the only one operating with impeccable manners and morals at all times.

The stakes start small, with a disagreement over a family heirloom, but in time the Major gets caught up in a series of larger battles with increasingly serious consequences. Meanwhile, his friendship with Mrs. Ali becomes both more important and more complicated.

I enjoyed the way MAJOR PETTIGREW built gradually and with a subtlety that matches the Major's personality. The book and its characters are very funny, but in a subdued way. The tone and humor reminded me of Mark Haddon's A SPOT OF BOTHER, though that was a much darker comedy than this one. They're both great books. You should add them to your list.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Laura Miller presents A reader's advice to writers: "I can tell you why I keep reading, and why I don't, why I recommend one book to my fellow readers, but not another."

→ Mary Jaksch at Write to Done advises adding some "weird" to make your writing memorable.

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