Helen Simonson's well-written and quite charming first novel, "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" (Random House, 358 pp., 2010, $25) was the January pick for the book club at Wellington Square Bookshop in Exton.
"Major Pettigrew," a tale of love rediscovered by a man and a woman in their 60s who thought their romantic lives to be over, was indeed lighter than the book about genocide in Burundi.
It's the kind of book you might want to pass along to your mom when you're finished. (I did!)
At part of our conversation about the book, book club discussion leaders Nancy and Judy set up a Skype interview with the author on a laptop so the roughly 20 women at the meeting could interact with Simonson, speaking from her Washington, D.C., home. I wish I could play that Skype interview for you here, as Simonson was delightful and truly witty. She was scheduled to speak with us for 30 min. and I believe she gave us a full hour.
Simonson, who wrote the book while a stay-at-home mom with two sons, said it took her five years of bits and pieces of time to conjure the novel. She had been working on writing professionally for about 12 years.
"I never thought that I would get published, and I've been writing for 12 years. It's really hard," said Simonson, who is pictured at left.
Simonson spent part of her childhood in the village of East Sussex, England, and has been living in the U.S. with her family for more than two decades. Her memories of her native country certainly haven't faded: "I didn't need to go to England to write about it - I write about it so I can spend more time there," she said.
Simonson said her novel started out as a short story for a writing class "about a lost opportunity to pursue a friendship." When she finished the story, her classmates wanted to know what became of the hero, the staunch Maj. Ernest Pettigrew, she said.
Pettigrew is just one of the realistic, falliable, endearing and quirky people in her pages.
The idea for Pettigrew's character "came straight from central casting at the BBC," Simonson joked. Pettigrew was a set-in-his-ways 68-year-old widower, resigned to golf and shooting outings with a few male buddies, a social life that revolved around the golf club, and scant visits from his insensitive Londoner son. But his eyes were opened by an encounter with a kind acquaintance, Mrs. Jasmina Ali, whom he knew from the shop where he purchased tea.
When Maj. Pettigrew's brother dies, the major is thrown into a funk. Mrs. Ali stops at his home to check on him and finds him rather undone. So she prepares some tea for them and offers her ear. Their mere acquaintance blooms into friendship and something more from that meeting.
Mrs. Ali is the kind of woman you feel you'd be a better person for knowing. Pleasant and practical with an intelligent sense of humor. And quite attractive, as the Major slowly seems to notice. She's a native of England of Pakastani descent, and her deceased husband's family has more antiquated values. Mrs. Ali has been quite independent since her husband's death, but now she is pressured by his family to pass along her small village shop to a nephew and retire before she seems ready to.
The major's son, Roger, came off as a greedy cad who didn't quite appreciate his stodgy by well-meaning old dad. Roger seems quite shallow - too concerned about appearances and opportunities to advance himself. Simonson, however, felt otherwise. She said that Roger was the character in the book she identified with the most because "I was a yuppie in New York."
To be able to call herself a full-time novelist now is exhilarating, Simonson said. "I'm having a blast. I'm like 'Cinderalla' and 'Pretty Woman' and I didn't even have to lose weight."
Asked what advice she might offer to other aspiring writers, Simonson said "get in a writer's group." She said the support she got in her group was immeasurable.
The story's not all prize roses and spots of tea, however. It's not a fairytale. There are some deeper theme, including cultural rifts and prejuduces, smallmindedness, greed, attempted murder, and attempted suicide. There is a darkly comic scene in which the Major's golf club puts on a dance, and all the wrong things happen.
It's one of those novels that builds to a spectacular flurry of activity at the end. Sometimes the anticipation of that climax grew a little bit tedious, for me at least. Going a step further, a book club friend said she "thought it would never end." But for the most part, I found "Major Pettigrew" to be cheerfully entertaining.
When asked what she thought of some of authors tending toward the dark underbelly of existence, and awards such as the Pulitzer being granted to those kinds of themes, Simonson said "I don't believe we should only describe the human condition by its frayed edges."
If you'd like a taste of "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand," here's an excerpt of courtesy of the New York Times.
Simonson said she's working on her second novel, but that fans should not expect it anytime soon. She plans to take her time.