by Helen Simonson
Random House, 2010
I had blogged earlier about this book because it gave me a vague Jane Austen vibe— not Austenish in the sense that the plot reminded me of her books, but the feel of it is very Jane-like. It's set mostly in a small English village, and it deals with marriage, family, race, class, manners, and relationships. Except for race, all those are to be found in Austen's work, too, but this time the pairing off happens between the eponymous gentleman, a widower in his late sixties, and a widow a decade younger who happens to be a shopkeeper. In a ironic touch, she is of Pakistani family but was born in Cambridge, and he is English through-and-through but was born in Lahore. Adding to the Austen feel is the formality still preferred in the village of Edgcombe St. Mary. Almost no one calls Major Pettigrew anything but "Major," and we don't learn Mrs. Ali's first name until a good way through the book.
Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali know each other when the story starts, but a sad coincidence throws them together in a new way. She appears at his door shortly after he has learned of the unexpected death of his younger brother and only sibling Bertie. Her kindness and sensitivity make the Major see her in a new light. He finds her a kindred spirit in regards to so many things that they begin to spend time together. This doesn't sit well with the small-town gossips and the golf club members of Edgcombe St. Mary. Indeed, Major Pettigrew is so concerned with what is proper, he finds it hard to ever speak of his feelings. His son Roger is too obsessed with his own career and his own love life to pay much attention to anyone else's problems. Roger's self-absorbed failings are obvious, but Simonson makes him at least a little bit sympathetic. It's clear the Major was a very old-fashioned father.
As the story progresses we learn more about the Major's past, about Colonel Pettirgew, his stern, distant father who espoused the old idea of primogeniture right up until death was near and it was time to decide what to do with an historic matched pair of valuable shotguns. The Colonel's shotguns were split but the pair was left in an informal tontine to whichever son survived longest. Now that his brother Bertie is gone, the Major expects the Colonel's deathbed wish to prevail, but it appears it is not to be.
But while the Major obsesses about the shotguns, he also learns about Mrs. Ali's situation, about how her family expects her to cede her shop, her livelihood, to a nephew because that is what is expected of women in her culture. The more he sees of her, the more he realizes how lonely his life has become and how much more alive he feels when he is with her. He even thinks of her when he is invited to a shoot at the local manor, a formal slaughter of ducks that the major is proud and pleased to be invited to. This passage illustrates Simonson's prose strengths, blending humor, physical observations, and character development all into a few sentences:
He thought of Mrs. Ali still tucked up in bed, dreaming behind her flowered curtains. She would awaken soon to the sound of the guns popping above the valley. He allowed himself to imagine striding into her shop at the end of the day, smelling of gunpowder and rain-misted leather, a magnificent rainbow-hued drake spilling from his game bag. It would be a primal offering of food from man to woman and a satisfyingly primitive declaration of intent. However, he mused, one could never be sure these days who would be offended by being handed a dead mallard bleeding from a breast full of tooth-breaking shot and sticky about the neck with dog saliva.
Simonson, who was born in Britain but lives in the US now, has a wonderfully delicate touch. the story is told in the Major's point of view, in third person but so close it might as well be first person. We see Mrs. Ali only through his eyes, but it is a tribute to Simonson's skill that we feel we know her just as well. I look forward to more novels from this author, and more wonderful characters like Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali.