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Book Report: Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson, is a novel for us pathetic Anglophiles, certainly. It’s a love story, a story of romance, not actually a romance novel but a love story nonetheless. It’s also about racial prejudice, the Conservative mindset, grief, books, guns and tea.

It’s got a great cover, too. Gentle Readers know how strongly I judge books by their covers, and I kept seeing the cover and picking it up off the New Books shelf a the library that employs me. And then putting it back, because it’s a love story, and I don’t really like love stories, right? I like wizards in pointy hats and spaceships and people shooting each other with zap guns or whacking each other with ensorceled swords. When I see that a book is telling the story of a romance in a small town in the actual world, my reaction is to put that book safely back on the shelf for somebody else. I am not in that audience.

Of course, I like plenty of love stories. I don’t think of myself as a reader of love stories, but that’s because I lie to myself about what kind of person I am. I mean, I’m still a Dickens rather than an Austen, that hasn’t changed, but I am a Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand person and not a Ready Player One person. I am a Eva Ibbotson person. I like love stories, so therefore I am the sort of person who likes love stories, right? Or, more accurate, I should keep in mind that I am not any particular sort of person at all, and also that I might like a love story now and then.

Of course, this is a love story between a widower and a widow of late middle age, neither of whom were looking for affection (or particularly prepared to give it house room when it showed up unannounced). As a resident of early middle age, I suspect I am more susceptible to this sort of thing than I am to Young Love. Also, the book is, I think, fundamentally about the difficulties of telling a Very English Story without completely ignoring the horrific unsaid consequences of Very Englishness, when in large part the core of Very Englishness lies in shutting one’s eyes to those horrific consequences.

In fact, when the novel asks, as it repeatedly does, what a person knows of England who only England knows, it seems to understand that it matters very much what a person knows of England who only England knows, and that it also matters very much what a person knows of England who only England knows even if that person isn’t English. Or doesn’t think of himself (or herself) as English, which perhaps matters even more.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,