Sometimes I just want tomato soup and crackers and sometimes I just want to read a comfort book. Helen Simonson’s “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” and Rosamunde Pilcher’s “Winter Solstice” have all the things I look for in a comfort novel. There are British countrysides, romantic developments, sex, strong characters, coming-of-age plots and plenty of whiskey drinking along with cups of tea.
There is only one thing different from the usual.
The characters who are coming-of-age in these stories happen to be in their sixties with Major Pettigrew at 68, and Elfrida Phipps at 62. So maybe coming-of-age isn’t quite right, as what these characters are experiencing is more of a reboot or rebirth. Whatever their age, these characters are so wonderfully written that they are easy to embody in my imagination.
After all, the problems that Major Ernest Pettigrew and Elfrida Phipps have could be the problems of anyone who has settled into their lives and are not expecting any more major changes for a while. You could be in your thirties and feel like you’ve settled into the same old rut. Graduated from college, moved out, married, children, bought house, boom. Once life’s little boxes are filled in, the field levels out. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Yet life’s journey can get a little predictable if nothing is done about it. That depressing expectation is just what the authors, Helen Simonson and Rosamunde Pilcher, have capitalized on.
For in the case of these two books, the main characters are about to meet new loves and make major box checking changes in their lives. In “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand”, you’ll find a character that is serious and quiet, but from the beginning the reader recognizes someone with spirit. In “Winter Solstice,” Elfrida Phipps has lived an interesting life but has just chosen to retire to a sleepy village.
“Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” starts out when Major Pettigrew has just heard the news that his brother has died. When the Pakistani green grocer who is also a widow comes to the door to deliver the paper, she sees immediately that he needs some company. He is touched by her kindness and they bond over the sadness of losing a spouse. At first Major Pettigrew’s problems seem rather small. The book moves slowly and it is only the growing romance that has created a question in my mind that I can’t ignore. Then things develop and compound until you can’t believe the way his problems have blossomed into every part of village life. It is almost agony how bad it gets.
In “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand,” it seems Major Pettigrew wants two things, to reunite a gift that his father gave to him and his brother and in doing, hold on to the value of the Pettigrew name as well as the proper English lifestyle it represents. But Major Pettigrew grows to want one other thing. He wants the friendship and then love of the widow, Mrs. Ali. This want outgrows everything else and is the key to his change into a vital, connected man again.
In an interview about creating series characters at http://www.thecrimevault.com, Charles Finch, author of “A Beautiful Blue Death,” said recently, “I think there are two approaches here: one is to make your lead character outlandish and fascinating (like Ozkar Mazerath in The Tin Drum for instance) the other to make your lead character quiet, observant, and flexible, and allow the world around him to be outlandish and fascinating (Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby is a good example).”
As the plot develops, quiet Major Pettigrew has to stand up to bullying, urban development schemes, brash Americans, small town racism, and family selfishness. Then the action becomes deeper, as issues of suicide, divorce and poverty take its toll on the characters he loves most. Major Pettigrew used to hold with being polite, but now he becomes a change agent, going after the woman he loves by stealing her away from over-jealous family control and by saving her nephew from death. The clash between Mrs. Ali’s Pakistani culture with the expectations of Major Pettigrew’s social club friends and snobby son made me squirm with embarrassment and then cheer on Major Pettigrew to the very end of the book.
If you have already read “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand,” you must pick up Rosamunde Pilcher’s “Winter Solstice.” In Pilcher’s book you get a story told from several viewpoints but the constant is Elfrida Phipps. She is happily independent, having made some money in her acting career and has come to live in a quiet village outside London after her lover has died. She is at peace with herself and her darling dog, who she adopts in the first chapter. To me, Elfrida is self-confident, accustomed to being a bit different, estranged from her social-climbing cousin-in-law, and fun to be around.
Here is how she is described in the book. “On Thursday morning she had her hair washed, and the colour given its monthly tweak. The shade was officially called Strawberry Blonde, but sometimes it came out more orange than strawberry. This was one of the times, but Elfrida had more important things to worry about. Clothes were a bit of a problem. In the end she put on a flowered skirt which reached her ankles and a long cardigan-type garment in lime-green knit. The effect of hair, flowers, and cardigan was fairly dazzling, but looking bizarre was one of Elfrida’s best ways of boosting her confidence.”
When she meets Oscar Blundell, he is married and has a child. But soon there is a tragedy and he loses his family and his home. With only a half-share in a house in Scotland left to his name, he asks Elfrida to join him in moving there. Elfrida is the kind of woman you would ask on a journey like this. Next, a young female relative asks to come visit over the upcoming Christmas holidays and bring her niece, who has been abandoned by her mother and grandmother to spend the holidays by herself. Elfrida says yes, and soon the Scottish manor house is bursting to the seams with all these people. Just as they’ve made this house their home, trouble comes with another guest that brings news that the other owner of the house wants to sell. Oscar Blundell doesn’t have the means to buy it and the rest of the book has the characters struggling to find a solution.
I guess what I love about these books is what I like about Charles Finch’s books as well. In between the action scenes we get these glimpses of what life is like in a small village. We go on walks to wide ocean beaches and watch a game of golf as the sun goes down. We go on a shoot, tend to roses and dry our laundry in the backyard. We see the dog, Horace, lift his paws in surprise at the snow that has fallen. These are the kinds of books that you re-read because you want to linger in that happy comfortable world.
Once the reading is done, these books do one more thing. They make turning forty, fifty, sixty or seventy seem much more positive with the knowledge that a “coming-of-age-style reinvention” can happen at any age.
By the way, while surfing around online I found out that you can rent a house in the same city as the book is set in and that is owned by Ms. Pilcher’s daughter-in-law. Scotland anyone?