Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Review: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson


Pages: 368
Original publication date: 2010
My edition: 2010 (Random House)
Why I decided to read: Arc sent to me through LibraryThing Early Reviewers
How I acquired my copy: ditto, November 2009
In this novel, we meet Major Ernest Pettigrew, a sexagenarian living in the small Sussex village in which he has lived all his life. The death of his brother, Bertie, leads to a chance encounter with Mrs. Ali, the Pakistani woman who owns a shop in the village. Their relationship is one of those gentle romances where, despite their differences and living in a circumscribed village where pretty much everybody judges you, the reader finds themselves rooting for these characters.

It’s a book that’s full of sarcasm, some of it genuinely funny; but most of it is at the expense of some of the other characters and ends up being malicious rather than entertaining. The author makes the mistake that a lot of first-time authors make: she both shows and tells. Take for example Major Pettigrew’s son, Roger. Not only are we shown that Roger is self-absorbed, Simonson also tells us that he is.

The prose is often overwritten, and sometimes doesn’t make sense. The author seems fond of the word “telegraphed” (as in “Amina looked down at her bright crimson boots, her shoulders sunk into an old woman’s hunch that telegraphed defeat.”). The author uses this verb at several different places in the novel. What happened to good, old “communicated?” It’s like she pulled out a thesaurus and thought, “what’s the most overwrought word I can use in this instance?” There are also some inconsistencies, too: the book is littered with Americanisms (French doors, vans, etc), but one of the American characters uses Briticisms, like addressing her boyfriend as “darling,” or describing something as “dreadful.”

I did like the premise of the novel, but it’s marred by a series of unlikely coincidences and people behaving in completely unlikely ways (ex. Mrs. Ali’s response to George and Amina about halfway through the book). I’ve been mostly critical of this book, but there are some really funny bits, too, and the characters of Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali are truly delightful. Despite my criticisms, Simonson has the potential to be a good writer; if only she would lay off the overwritten prose, and polished her writing a bit, a fine novel might come out of that.

Also reviewed by: An Adventure in Reading

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