This delightful book featuring older protagonists is part of the small but growing genre known as “romance for wrinklies.”
Major Pettigrew is a very proper and deliciously droll and sardonic widower of 68 in the small village of Edgecombe St. Mary, in Sussex, England. After he just found out he lost his brother to a heart attack, the proprietress of the village mini-mart, Jasmina Ali, stops by to collect some money he owes. She, a 58-year-old Pakistani widow, lost her husband to a heart attack not long ago, and she ministers kindly and adroitly to the grieving Major. They are able to form an immediate bond because of both having lost their spouses. Major Pettigrew observes how one never quite overcomes this loss:
“‘Yes, she’s been gone some six years now,’ he said. ‘Funny really, it seems like both an eternity and the blink of an eye all at the same time.’
‘It is very dislocating,’ she said. Her crisp enunciation, so lacking among many of his village neighbors, struck him with the purity of a well-tuned bell. ‘Sometimes my husband feels as close to me as you are now, and sometimes I am quite alone in the universe,’ she added.”
As they talk, the Major realizes he wants to see Mrs. Ali again, and “whether this might be proof that he was not as ossified as his sixty-eight years, and the limited opportunities of village life, might suggest.” Indeed, his hilariously self-interested son Roger is convinced he is ready for a nursing home.
The Major is constantly contriving ways to spend time with Mrs. Ali, and before long, gets entangled with her family. He also gets an appalling close perspective on what it is like to be a “person of color” living in a narrow-minded village whose inhabitants still remember the racial lessons of colonialism.
He tries to be romantic, with his old-fashioned chivalry running head-on into Mrs. Ali’s sense of realism and sense of humor. After she calls herself “a silly old woman” he says:
“‘My dear Mrs. Ali, I would hardly refer to you as old,’ he said. ‘You are in what I would call the very prime flowering of mature womanhood.’ It was a little grandiose but he hoped to surprise a blush. Instead she laughed out loud at him.
‘I have never heard anyone try to trowel such a thick layer of flattery on the wrinkles and fat deposits of advanced middle age, Major,’ she said. ‘I am fifty-eight years old and I think I have slipped beyond flowering. I can only hope now to dry out into one of those everlasting bouquets.’”
The Major tries to take Mrs. Ali to his country club with him, but it ends up disastrously. It is not without moments of great humor, however, as when the Major fears the wait staff suffers from “some disease of holes in the face” until he figures out that club rules required jewelry be removed from piercings. His commentary about America and Americans sent me into gales of laughter. But after the party, when Mrs. Ali has been repeatedly insulted and she leaves, comes one of the most poignant moments of the book:
“‘Go back to your party, Major,’ she said. ‘You’ll catch cold standing in the dark.’ She hurried down the driveway and as she disappeared, blue dress into deep night, he knew he was a fool. Yet at that moment, he could not find a way to be a different man.”
I’ve only told you about a few of the characters in this book but every one is fabulously drawn, and even the horrid ones are somehow endearing, no doubt because of their sympathetic rendering in the eyes of the Major.
I won’t spoil the ending, but it is so improbable and charming, you won’t want to miss it!
Evaluation: This is an amazingly accomplished effort from a first-time novelist. While this book is at heart a romance, it is no “chick” book. It also touches on issues of race relations, urbanization and greed, and the clash of culture and religions. In spite of how serious that may sound, it is a book suffused with humor and the joy of those who refuse to give up living at any stage of their lives. Highly recommended!
Published by Random House, 2010