Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
While I was on leave, I drank quite a bit of tea, and I think this novel may be partially to blame. The novel begins when Major Pettigrew finds out that his brother has died, and while he is processing this news, his town's shopkeeper drops by to pick up the newspaper money. As a result, Jasmina Ali sees the always proper major in a slightly disoriented state, and she volunteers to help him out as necessary, including a ride to the funeral. The major soon realizes just how forward he looks to seeing her, and having discussions with her, and a friendship slowly develops over tea and Kipling. They have both lost their spouses in the past, and get along easily but their different backgrounds provide some difficulties. Ali is Pakistani, and while she is accepted in the community, there is a certain type of racism and cultural insensitivity displayed towards her in the community. For example, when the golf club's committee of women decides to do an Indian theme (or actually Mughal), they start throwing in all types of stereotypes, and want to ask her. The major, who spent part of his childhood in India, attempts to explain just how off they are. While Ali graciously assists, the evening ends up being disastrous.
Additionally, Ali's nephew has come to assist with the shop, and he is also acting as a bit of baby-sitter. Simonson deals with the cultural differences and complications with a light touch that seems realistic rather than heavy-handed. The major has his own generational problems: he doesn't understand his young son, Roger, at all. Roger is very materialistic and focused on money while his father is more concerned with tradition. I can't say I ever liked Roger, but even with the novel being mostly from the major's perspective, none of the characters seem completely two-dimensional. One of the major parts of the narrative concerns Major Pettigrew's father's rifles. When he died, each of his sons inherited one, and as far as the major was concerned, they were to be reunited at either brother's death. However, his brother made no mention of this in his will, and since the set is worth 100,000 pounds this is obviously a point of contention. Roger is purely interested in selling them and making a quick buck, while for his father, they are a family heirloom.
The ending was a bit crazy compared to the relative calm of the rest of the novel, but it wasn't distracting enough to take away from the rest of the novel. I would definitely recommend this novel, and plan to read more by this author. I just liked her characters, and the way she incorporates old, traditional England with the evolving world, and how it affects the people in small towns. I liked that as much as the major cared about tradition, honor and family, he was also willing to take a chance, overlooked things his neighbors didn't, and tried to be a good person, even if he made mistakes and was fallible.