When I was handed this book by my library book group, I thought they’d handed me another dud. Despite almost universal praise in the blogosphere, it wasn’t a book I would have got to of my own accord. But that’s the beauty of a book group – the discovery of an absolute gem.
Admittedly it took me a couple of chapters to get into but then there was no stopping me.
It was the hardback cover that put me off. I was expecting some kind of sloppy romance. Well, the romance is there but this is a very English comedy of manners set in a snobbish, rascist Sussex village (fictitious I presume) in which an upstanding Major falls unexpectedly in love with the Pakistani proprietress of the corner shop. Yet this man is no liberal. He’s very proper and very upper middle class. Suffering from the recent loss of his brother, it is an act of kindness that makes him fall for Mrs Ali, but at 59 he is no longer sure of himself and his vulnerabilities and insecurities as he woos his lady makes him a very appealing character. At the same time, his preoccupations and machinations to ensure the return of a family heirloom to his possession show him not to be quite the perfect specimen that some ladies in my group believe him to be.
The romance, while gentle, is galvanising and devisive and enables the author to explore preconceptions and prejudice on both side of the racial divide . Major Pettigrew’s middle-age romance is contrasted with that of a younger pairing- their relationship also the subject of disapproval from the Muslim family. Serious issues such as the submissive roles and sacrifices females are expected to make in traditional Muslim families are seamlessly woven into the plot. So too are issues that cast unfavourable light on English values: the snobbishness and racism of the golf club: the materialism of the upper middle classes and those wishing to make the right connections to further their careers.
This novel certainly makes its readers think, but there’s no heavy-handedness. In fact, it is very, very funny. I’m not going to quote anything. I suspect you have to be there in context to be surprised by some of the extremely witty one-liners. But I laughed out loud on more than one occasion.
It’s not perfect. The resolution to the Abdul Wahid thread is – shall we say – rather over the top. Too dramatic to get with the rest of the novel. Perhaps Simonson had her eye on potential cinematics?
Minor niggle really. I laughed, I cried at the happy ending and I completely forgot about the rubbishy wet weather outside. Just wish I’d read it sooner.