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Originally published Thursday, April 29, 2010 at 7:02 PM

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Book review

'Major Pettigrew's Last Stand': Late-life romance meets some obstacles in debut novel

Late-life romance encounters some obstacles in a seemingly idyllic English village in "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand," a debut novel by English-born, American-resident author Helen Simonson.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Helen Simonson

Simonson reads from "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand," 7 p.m. Monday, Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).

This modest, charming little book with the old-fashioned title has been getting a lot of attention. It has made The New York Times best-seller list and amazon.com's March list of "Best Books of the Month," and The Christian Science Monitor called it "Jane Austen meets Alexander McCall Smith."

For a 21st-century novel, "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand (Random House, 358 pp., $25) is a most unlikely star: no Forks vampires, no schoolboy wizards, no sinister secret societies.

Instead, we have a stiff-upper-lipped widower hero in his late 60s and a passel of disapproving English church ladies who want to make sure Major Pettigrew doesn't do anything unseemly — like getting better acquainted with the charming Pakistani widow lady, Mrs. Ali, who is also (horrors!) a shopkeeper.

First-time author Helen Simonson has created the cozy village world of Edgecombe St. Mary, where the Major can often be found polishing his treasured Churchill sporting gun in his comfortable home with its pastoral surroundings, Rose Lodge.

Both the Churchill gun and that pastoral view figure prominently in the novel's plot. The gun is one of a pair awarded to the Major's military father for valor, bequeathed to the Major and his brother Bertie with the understanding that the surviving brother would reunite the two guns in their specially made double walnut box.

In the opening pages of "Major Pettigrew," Bertie has just died, and the Major — who has not counted on the rapacity of his relatives — is looking forward to brandishing both guns at the next shooting party.

Simonson gives us a cast of very broadly drawn characters, including not only the Major's rapacious niece, whose eye is "beady as a gull eyeing a bag of garbage" (and who wants to sell the valuable guns), but also Mrs. Ali's grim nephew and the Major's truly horrid son Roger — a blatantly callous social climber who'd like to shove his able-bodied father aside so Roger can nab his house and guns and anything else that's left.

Then there are the village ladies with their "blunt tweedy concerns ... who talked horses and raffles at the hunt ball and who delighted in clucking over which unreliable young mother from the council cottages had messed up arrangements for this week's play group at the Village Hall."

When the upper-crust types whose shooting-party invitations the Major is eager to accept decide to develop the beautiful surrounding countryside into mini-manors, he faces the first of many home truths about what is really valuable in life. Social climbing, material possessions and traditions all pale beside more important issues — such as whether Major Pettigrew has really been a better father to the awful Roger than his own distant Dad was to him. And whether he really cares what villagers and relatives think about his love for Mrs. Ali. All this is served up with a delightful side of wry.

As the Major observes, "Passion is all very well, but it wouldn't do to spill the tea."

Melinda Bargreen is the former classical-music critic for The Seattle Times. She's a freelance contributor to the Times and reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM (www.king.org).

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