Salon Reading Club (Why must a novel’s characters be likable?) suggested that reviewers (often online reviewers) make judgments about a book’s worth based on whether or not we find the characters to be “good” and “nice”. This was written in regard to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.
This idea occurred to me as I was reading Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. This is a first novel, but it has a certain maturity about it. Perhaps this is why it has found its way onto the bestseller lists. It is a charming, gentle read about life in an English village. The story is told with a dry wit and has a very satisfactory ending. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is comprised of three stories. Major Pettigrew’s brother has died and he wishes to reunite the matched set of guns that his father had divided between them upon his death. Major Pettigrew engages in a romance with shopkeeper Mrs. Ali. And finally, Mrs. Ali must resolve her family problems.
I had difficulty in drumming up sympathetic feelings for most of the characters (with the exception of Mrs. Ali and her nephew Abdul Wahid). Major Pettigrew (I dare not refer to him as Ernest) epitomizes the dutiful, deferential Englishman. Although 68 years old (presumably born in the 1930’s or 1940’s) he seems a man out of time. He fails to understand that the world has changed and that people have changed. While his adherence to good manners and etiquette seems at first refreshing in our increasingly impolite world, his inflexible nature makes it difficult for the reader to remain on his side.
He was the eldest son and as a result inherited the family home and savings. His father, on this deathbed, divided his pair of valuable guns between the brothers with the understanding that they would be reunited upon either son’s death. Only one person to this oral agreement remains alive. Pettigrew fails to comprehend that this tradition might not be appreciated in this more democratic world. He sees his brother’s family as grasping and greedy. He cannot see that they might want to profit from the one valuable item his brother inherited. As his relationship with Mrs. Ali develops, he encounters blatant racism from the other villagers. He does not appear to make the same connection with his son’s American girlfriend, who he despises as being boorish and ill-mannered because she came from a different world than his. Finally, his son irritates him with his yuppie-like ambition, but cannot see that his own desire to be well-regarded by the local aristocracy is much the same.
Having said all that, Major Pettigrew (maybe now I can call him Ernest), thanks to a dramatic and life threatening experience, learns the value of people and relationships over possessions and tradition, and seems to have a more satisfying and less lonely life ahead of him. Perhaps the hallmark of all good stories, I would like to see more of him and find out whether he will indeed change or will he slip back to old patterns.