Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired) lives in the English countryside, clinging to his traditional ways. Since his wife died, he and his son Roger have drifted apart. When Pettigrew’s brother, Bertie, also dies, it leads to a fight over a set of guns that the two brothers owned. The boys’ father gave one gun to each son with the understanding that they would be reunited upon either of their deaths. Bertie neglected to leave specific instructions regarding the gun in his will; as a result, his widow is reluctant to hand over such an expensive object to Major Pettigrew. While he is embroiled in this battle, Pettigrew gets to know Mrs. Ali, the Muslim shopkeeper who lives in town. Becoming friends with her means that Pettigrew realizes some things about himself and the values he seems to hold so dear.
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is a novel about the quietness of life. There are no wars or explosions – instead, it is about living day to day. The huge moments and earth-shaking events in this book are contained in conversations and small actions rather than momentous deeds.
At the same time, Simonson manages to tackle a host of contemporary issues within the pages of this novel – racism, disrespect, fixation on money, and many more. She never drags the reader down with heavy subjects though; they are expertly incorporated into the story such that the reader doesn’t even realize there’s any sort of social commentary taking place until after the scene has passed. It’s a marvelous skill, and one that Simonson uses very effectively here.
Simonson’s impressive writing is made even more so given that Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is her debut novel. She does an excellent job developing her main characters; both Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali are endearing and easy to sympathize with. It’s gratifying to be along for the ride, watching Pettigrew grow as a character and become aware of his own prejudices as well as of those around him. It’s also interesting to see how Mrs. Ali reacts to others’ preconceptions of her, as well as how she’s constrained by her family’s ideals and values.
I can’t emphasize enough the quiet, toned-down nature of this novel. To be honest, I wasn’t sure it would even keep my attention, it’s so subtle. But Simonson is an excellent writer and a gifted storyteller. I found myself enchanted by the world she created, wanting to know how everything would turn out and to be reassured that it would all be okay. This is a thoroughly enjoyable novel about the small pleasures in life and how important they really are.