If Miss Marple investigated social consciousness instead of murder mysteries, Agatha Christie might have written this book. Set in a charmingly upscale village on the Sussex downs, this novel is a charmingly upscale commentary on British snobbery as widowed, bookish and oh-so-English Major Pettigrew falls inevitably in love with the village’s Pakistani shopkeeper.
Consequences ensue, and it is a bit of a cliffhanger – we know the Major, a good-intentioned but weak man, a bit too thoroughly, and yearn for him to do the right thing as the complicated plot and veddy civilized, well-drawn characters keep tumbling through the book. There is action and adventure (country-club ball fiasco! running away to a Welsh cottage!), a shooting party and plenty of tea-drinking, along with sharp and witty observations of the stresses in England along generational, ethnic, economic and class lines.
This is the village version of the many London-centric novels that deal with the same topics, among them Zadie’s Smith’s White Teeth and Ian McEwan’s Saturday. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is altogether less ambitious, but it’s of good, strong stock, with excellent manners, is rooted in its locale, and it serves up a fine microcosm of English society.
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson, now in paperback ($15). Available at Vroman’s and other local bookstores.