Sunday, May 1, 2011

There is a Time and a Place, and This is Not It

Yet another selection drawn from suggestions on Austenprose - Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson.  This one, at least as far as I could tell, has nothing to do with Jane Austen.  It's just an old-time English manners and people getting married tale, at least of a sort - contemporary but almost feels like a throwback.  Anyway, it's apparently fairly popular, there were quite a number of holds ahead of me.  And it took me two times getting it out till I got up to it, not that that's an indication of anything more than that my reading list is severely backed up.  Anyway, I did finally get to it over the last days, and then neglected to review it till now (I guess it's less than a week, not really so bad).  I have to say, this has not been a riveting intro, and for that I am sorry.  Moving on...

The book jacket describes Major Pettigrew as this extraordinary and very lovable character.  I suppose he was lovable, but I tend to like most main characters in the books I read.  As for extraordinary? For the most part, he seemed the very prototype of an English gentleman.  Maybe extraordinary in the sense that I don't know how many proper English gentlemen there are left.  But, really, he could have walked out of the pages of Agatha Christie.  And while he was lovable, a lot of that was in contrast to the many rather loathsome members of the supporting cast.  But not loathsome in the sense that I joined him and the author in their righteous indignation.  More like loathsome in the sense that, okay, sure you made this character hateful so he's hateful.  My point is, you can't really get up on your high horse about proper behavior when the improper examples seem so manufactured.

But that's a minor point.  I think for me to judge this book, the most important thing is for me to know what I'm judging.  This task is not trivial, since I think the book itself wasn't quite sure.  Parts of it were quite light, ensuring me that I could take its ups and down with a grain of salt and just enjoy the character interaction.  But the more I read, the more I realized this book was meant, if not as a serious tome, than at least novel with serious themes.  So leaving aside that I have little interest in reading novels about religious prejudice in England, how was the book in this context? Meh... I mean Major Pettigrew's and Mrs. Ali's story was sweet, but I thought at times a little... forced I guess. Towards the end, there was a runaway escape from her domineering brother and then an attempted murder AND suicide.  It's like, wow, have I wandered into The Kite Runner? (Not that I've ever read that, but presumably that where such antics about oppressive Muslim culture belong).  Well I guess I'm not being fair - the point is, these things do exist even in England, which is sad, but which we all know.  And I don't think that a book about an English gentleman is the place where you expect to encounter these cases.

And what about the more traditional English themes of family and neighbors? Like I said, the Major's ungrateful and rather vulgar son Roger is certainly not a sympathetic character.  But he's also not a particularly realistic one.  How did two such wonderful people as the Major and his late wife end up with a son whose manners and whose character is, in a word, execrable? Umm, maybe because in fiction anything goes?  But it certainly doesn't wring my heartstrings any when I see no connection to something that I can ever see happening - imo, kids are mostly like their parents.  And if the parents see no need to teach their children the right way to behave, then they aren't very good people themselves.  The neighbors too, while mostly insensitive and often rude, seem like they would be the exception in the normal English country village, not the rule.

Themes of diversity and racism can always strike a nerve, especially as I know there is plenty of anti-Semitism alive and well in English country villages.  But I just felt like I got ripped off with this book - I mean it was reviewed on Austenprose! And while the Major and Mrs. Ali's romance was the thread that kept the book going, in the end, it seemed almost secondary to its racially and ethnically charged backdrop.   Important as these issues may be, no one thinks they're any fun.

Verdict: 2.5/5

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