Reviewed April 28, 2010.
Random House, New York, 2010. 358 pages.
Here's a gentle love story, which reminded me of Alexander McCall Smith's books like La's Orchestra Saves the World, or maybe The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Though the story is completely different, the tone is similar, with nice, calm people going about their everyday lives while confronted with problems, and quietly falling in love along the way.
The book opens on the morning when the retired Major Pettigrew has learned that his younger brother is dead:
Major Pettigrew was still upset about the phone call from his brother's wife and so he answered the doorbell without thinking. On the damp bricks of the path stood Mrs. Ali from the village shop. She gave only the faintest of starts, the merest arch of an eyebrow. A quick rush of embarrassment flooded to the Major's cheeks and he smoothed helplessly at the lap of his crimson, clematis-covered housecoat with hands that felt like spades.
Major Pettigrew's wife died only six years before, and Mrs. Ali's husband died the previous year, so they understand each other's grief and little rituals, like occasionally wearing his wife's favorite housecoat. They gradually discover they have some other interests in common, including a shared love of books.
Mrs. Ali's Pakistani family does not approve that her husband left the shop to her and that she is continuing to run it. They are pressuring her to live with her husband's family now that he is gone.
Meanwhile, Major Pettigrew goes to his brother's funeral. He is appalled when he learns that his brother did not leave him the second of his father's fine guns, a gift from an Indian maharajah. Their father had given them each one gun to remember him by, asking that the pair be reunited eventually to pass on further in the family. Major Pettigrew left explicit directions in his will to leave his gun to his brother, if he died first, but it appears that his brother did not return the favor. And his brother's wife, their daughter, and even the Major's own son all want him to sell the pair, more valuable together, and they each have plans for what to do with the money.
There was a point toward the beginning of this book when I got annoyed by how no one in Major Pettigrew's life was very nice at all, except Mrs. Ali. His son is a social climber with a new American fiance, and he seems to think his father is there to fulfill his whims. The local village ladies have their own ideas on who the major should marry. They are planning an elaborate party at his club and rope him in to getting involved, while coming across as interfering busybodies.
But the people did grow on me. Major Pettigrew moves through the uproar of circumstances with dignity and humor. I began to see even glimmers of humanity in his ungrateful son.
Of course, the ladies of the village really get upset when they begin to realize how Major Pettigrew's feelings for Mrs. Ali are blossoming. And her own family keeps pressuring her to leave the village. Can Major Pettigrew go against generations of tradition and find love with a Pakistani woman who is actually (shudder) in trade?
Here is an exchange I enjoyed between the Major and Mrs. Ali's nephew about the nephew's love life:
"I'm only joking," said Abdul Wahid. "You are a wise man, Major, and I will consider your advice with great care -- and humility." He finished his tea and rose from the table to go to his room. "But I must ask you, do you really understand what it means to be in love with an unsuitable woman?"
"My dear boy," said the Major. "Is there really any other kind?"