I have a confession: In many of my recent book review blog posts, I have been more complimentary than critical. This was an intentional choice, informed largely by the contemporary nature of the books I've been reading. I confess that until the last several months, I have tended to read contemporary literature rather ungenerously—that is, I read contemporary novels as if I’m workshopping them, which is to say that I am more alert to flaws than to strengths. At
Squaw Valley, I realized this habit is not unique to me:
two writers in two different afternoon panel discussions used the word
“ambivalent” to describe how they feel towards contemporary literature.
Such ambivalence is harmful in that it can make us miss the real achievements in front of us. On a larger scale, if such ambivalence continues, it could have the very negative effect of creating an expectation for perfection (you can read more about this here). In other words, if novelists begin making choices on the basis of avoiding flaws, their manuscripts will very quickly fall flat.
All of this has been in the back of my mind lately, but I’m bringing it to the fore now because I realized, in sitting down to write about Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, that indulging in too many compliments amounts to crying wolf. That is to say, I know I’ve been complimentary lately, but this time you really must believe me: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is, in fact, an outstanding book.
Major Pettigrew is perhaps the first contemporary book that, for much of it, I enjoyed as much as a nineteenth century novel. That’s saying a lot for me who feels nowhere so at home as in the nineteenth century. Major Pettigrew in fact has a flavor of the nineteenth century while remaining perfectly contemporary in its setting and in the society it is slyly critiquing. It is a comedy of manners, and it blends a Jane Austen flair for satirizing characters with a Thackeray-esque critique of the larger social backdrop.
Simonson’s deft portrayal of Major Pettigrew leaves us at once with sympathy for him and with an awareness of his own narrow-mindedness. The novel opens with the Major newly bereaved by his brother’s death—clearly a sympathetic position. But then, when talking with his sister-in-law on the phone, the Major becomes caught in the very selfishness he sees in others. When his sister-in-law informs him his brother’s funeral will be on Tuesday, the Major suspects that the funeral had been “scheduled around available beauty appointments. She would want to make sure her stiff wave of yellow hair was freshly sculpted…”. But, a moment later, the narration reveals that the Major is discontent with the choice of Tuesday because he has a doctor’s appointment that he doesn’t want to reschedule.
The book is so fun to read in part because the reader is frequently left to connect the dots. When the Major and his Pakistani friend attend a party at the country club whose ridiculous theme is Days of the Maharaja—a theme that the rural British attendees interpret simply as All-Things-India, no matter how anachronistic the elements they incorporate are—the Major comments on the music, “Is that Elgar?” “I think it’s from The King and I or something similar,” said Mrs. Ali. It’s up to the reader to recognize that Elgar is England’s greatest composer and The King and I takes place in Siam/Thailand, and once the reader makes that leap, it makes the scenario that much more absurd and therefore funny.
The humor is less subtle but no less delightful in Simonson’s more blatantly satirical passages. Take, for instance, the arrival of Major Pettigrew’s son’s American girlfriend, whom the Major has not yet met:
[The car] slid up the driveway and parked in the large open space the other guests had politely left clear in front of the door. . . . The driver reholstered a silver lipstick and opened her door. More from instinct than inclination, [Major Pettigrew] held the door for her. She looked surprised and then smiled as she unfolded tanned and naked legs from the close confines of the champagne leather cockpit.
“I’m not going to do that thing where I assume you’re the butler and you turn out to be Lord So-and-So,” she said, smoothing down her plain black skirt. It was of expensive material but unexpected brevity. She wore it with a fitted black jacket worn over nothing—at least, no shirt was immediately visible in the cleavage, which, due to her height and vertiginous heels, was almost at the Major’s eye level.
Exaggerated? Yes, but well within the limits of a comedy of manners. And besides, the word choice and details are so well done, it’s downright funny. “Reholstering” the lipstick; the entendre of “cockpit” so aptly placed; her ridiculous but completely believable speech of “I’m not going to do that thing where…”—all of this is at once exaggerated and pitch perfect.
I could go on with examples of humor—I didn’t even touch on how well Simonson sets up a character’s expectations and then quickly subverts them—but the book is not great simply because it is humorous. It blends with this humor a very heartfelt reflection on the fleetingness of life and how subsequently precious and rare moments of happiness are. For all that the book’s structure follows a comedic pattern, there is a sense of loss and of the pettiness that leaves us all so cabin’d, cribb’d, confined.
I have to admit that the book’s climax threatened to spin a little out of control. But in the spirit of reading generously and of recognizing how this book intentionally responds to the nineteenth century, I prefer to see the climax more along the lines of one of Dickens’s harebrained, over-the-top climaxes (I’m thinking Hard Times). Percy Lubbock addressed such climaxes in The Craft of Fiction.
explains that Dickens builds the impression of a particular world so well that
by the time the overly-dramatic twist comes, the novel’s foundation sustains it
and the twist avoids the melodrama of a romance. So too does Simonson’s ending work in the
context of her own novel.
Until Major Pettigrew, I had started to lose hope that novels which are comedy of manners must really be a little too old-fashioned to fly in today’s publishing market, no matter how contemporary the book’s setting. Major Pettigrew gives me new hope that such a novel can be pulled off and pulled off well, and that such novels do indeed have a place in the contemporary literary scene.