Monday, December 13, 2010

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

 January 10, 2011        1 p.m.

Discussion Leader:  Edna Ritzenberg

Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired) leads a quiet life in the village of St. Mary, England, until his brother's death sparks an unexpected friendship with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the Pakistani shopkeeper from the village. Drawn together by their shared love of literature and the loss of their respective spouses, the Major and Mrs. Ali soon find their friendship blossoming into something more. But will their relationship survive in a society that considers Ali a foreigner?

Reviews from the NoveListPlus database:

Change is threatening the little world of Edgecombe St. Mary. Lord Dagenham is about to sell off part of his ancestral estate to developers, and Pakistanis have taken over the village shop. Major Ernest Pettigrew is definitely old school, but he has been lonely since his wife died, and though he is is prey to various unattached ladies it is with shopkeeper Mrs. Ali that he forms a bond, nourished by their mutual interest in literature. Meanwhile, his ambitious son Roger comes to town with a sleek American girlfriend and starts renovating a nearby cottage. And the village ladies are busy hatching plans for the annual Golf Club dance, for which this year’s theme is “An Evening at the Mughal Court.” There is a great deal going on in these pages—sharply observed domestic comedy, late-life romance, culture clash, a dash of P. G. Wodehouse, and a pinch of religious fundamentalism. First novelist Simonson handles it all with great aplomb, and her Major, with his keen sense of both honor and absurdity, is the perfect lens through which to view contemporary England. -- Quinn, Mary Ellen (Reviewed 02-15-2010) (Booklist, vol 106, number 12, p37) 
Publishers Weekly:
In her charming debut novel, Simonson tells the tale of Maj. Ernest Pettigrew, an honor-bound Englishman and widower, and the very embodiment of duty and pride. As the novel opens, the major is mourning the loss of his younger brother, Bertie, and attempting to get his hands on Bertie's antique Churchill shotgun—part of a set that the boys' father split between them, but which Bertie's widow doesn't want to hand over. While the major is eager to reunite the pair for tradition's sake, his son, Roger, has plans to sell the heirloom set to a collector for a tidy sum. As he frets over the guns, the major's friendship with Jasmina Ali—the Pakistani widow of the local food shop owner—takes a turn unexpected by the major (but not by readers). The author's dense, descriptive prose wraps around the reader like a comforting cloak, eventually taking on true page-turner urgency as Simonson nudges the major and Jasmina further along and dangles possibilities about the fate of the major's beloved firearms. This is a vastly enjoyable traipse through the English countryside and the long-held traditions of the British aristocracy. (Mar.) --Staff (Reviewed January 4, 2010) (Publishers Weekly, vol 257, issue 1, p1) 
Library Journal:
/* Starred Review */ Sixty-eight-year-old Maj. Ernest Pettigrew has settled into a genteel life of quiet retirement in his beloved village of Edgecombe St. Mary. Refined, gentlemanly, unwaveringly proper in his sense of right vs. wrong, and bemused by most things modern, he has little interest in cavalier relationship mores, the Internet, and crass developments and is gently smitten by the widowed Mrs. Ali, the lovely Pakistani owner of the local shop where he buys his tea. After the unsettling death of his brother, Bertie, the Major finds his careful efforts to court Mrs. Ali (who shares his love of literature) constantly nudged off-course by his callow son, Roger; a handful of socialite ladies planning a dinner/dance at the Major's club; and the not-so-subtle racist attitudes his interest in Mrs. Ali engender. VERDICT This irresistibly delightful, thoughtful, and utterly charming and surprising novel reads like the work of a seasoned pro. In fact, it is Simonson's debut. One cannot wait to see what she does next. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/09.]—Beth E. Andersen, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI --Beth E. Andersen (Reviewed December 15, 2009) (Library Journal, vol 134, issue 20, p101) 
Set-in-his-ways retired British officer tentatively courts charming local widow of Pakistani descent.Shortly after being informed that his younger brother Bertie has suddenly passed away from a coronary, Maj. Ernest Pettigrew answers his door to find Mrs. Ali, proprietress of his village food shop. She's on an errand, but when she steps in to help the somewhat older man during a vulnerable moment, something registers; then they bond over a shared love of Kipling and the loss of their beloved spouses. Their friendship grows slowly, with the two well aware of their very different lives. Though born in England, Mrs. Ali is a member of the Pakistani immigrant community and is being pressured by her surly, religious nephew Abdul Wahid to sign over her business to him. The major belongs to a non-integrated golf club in their village and is girding himself for a messy battle with his sister-in-law Marjorie over a valuable hunting rifle that should rightfully have gone to him after Bertie's death. He also must contend with his grown son Roger, a callow, materialistic Londoner who appears in the village with a leggy American girlfriend and plans to purchase a weekend cottage for reasons that seem more complex than mere family unity. Add to that a single mum with a small boy who bears a striking resemblance to Abdul Wahid, and you have enough distractions to keep the mature sweethearts from taking it to the next level. But the major rallies and asks Mrs. Ali to accompany him to the annual club dance, which happens to have an ill-advised "Indian" theme. The event begins magically but ends disastrously, with the besotted major fearing he has lost his love forever. His only chance at winning her back is to commit to a bold sacrifice without any guarantees it will actually work. Unexpectedly entertaining, with a stiff-upper-lip hero who transcends stereotype, this good-hearted debut doesn't shy away from modern cultural and religious issues, even though they ultimately prove immaterial. (Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 2009) More information:

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Eva Moves the Furniture by Margot LIvesey

 Monday, December 13, 1 p.m.
 Discussion Leader: Ellen Getreu

Her father and aunt lovingly raise Eva McEwen, whose
mother has died in childbirth. Eva has two ghosts, a girl
and a woman, whom she calls “the companions” that only
she can see. Though the “companions” are there more for
her protection than to cause harm, they also seem to be
able to manipulate a variety of events in her life.

Reviews from the NovelistPlus database:

Eva McEwen is the engaging central character in Livesey’s newest novel, set in Scotland in the early 1900s. Eva draws her first breath as her mother’s life ebbs away under the strain of a laborious birth. Raised by her father and the practical Aunt Lily, Eva grows to be quite a respectable woman, but throughout her life she keeps a closely guarded secret about the “companions” who come and go in her life at their leisure. These specters most commonly take the form of a woman and a young girl, and they can be helpful as well as mischievous, often underhandedly manipulating events in Eva’s life. Eva’s undaunted tolerance of these apparitions and their activities is tinged with a subtle humor, but with the added melancholic flavor of a lonely girl who cannot be fearful of entities whose realm is also home to her departed mother. An enjoyable read that explores the esoteric essence of life, death, and undying love. (Reviewed July 1, 2001) -- Elsa Gaztambide
Publishers Weekly:
/* Starred Review */ After Criminals and The Missing World , it should be no surprise that the immensely talented Livesey continues to juxtapose strange events with mundane daily activities, sending a jolt through her ordinary characters and settings. The wonder is that she can draw readers into her world so gently that the barriers between reality and the fantastic quickly fall. The first time the narrator Eva McEwen sees her "companions" she is six, and living near the Scottish town of Troon with her middle-aged father and her aunt, who came to raise Eva after her mother died in childbed. Though much loved, Eva is lonely, and when a woman who "shone as if she had been dipped in silver" and a young girl with long braids and freckles appear one afternoon in the garden, she is at first unaware that they are not corporeal. The companions, as she comes to call them, are not visible to others, however, and their purpose in her life seems unclear. Twice they save her from fatal harm; twice they destroy a romance; often they are comforting; sometimes they signal their presence by moving furniture. Eva works as a nurse in a Glasgow infirmary during WWII, but the burden of her secret keeps her from achieving intimacy with anyone. When she does confide in a man she loves, a brilliant surgeon, heartbreak ensues. She seeks solace in her mother's native village of Glenaird, where she marries and has a daughter. But in a poignant denouement, the significance of the companions is made clear. With remarkable control, Livesey presents the companions in matter-of-fact detail, eschewing frissons of horror and providing a lucid explanation of their presence. Her restraint and delicacy, and the reader's identification with the appealing Eva, result in a haunting drama. Agent, Amanda Urban. (Sept.) Forecast: An author tour and strong word of mouth should spark this novel's sales. Every mother who yearns to protect her child will relate to Eva and react emotionally to Livesey's moving story. --Staff (Reviewed July 30, 2001) (Publishers Weekly, vol 248, issue 31, p57)
Library Journal:
(The following is a combined review for TRYST; POLLY'S GHOST; and EVA MOVES THE FURNITURE) The ghost story as romance has no better example than (o.p.), in which Hilary, a British soldier killed in battle, falls in love with Sabrina, the young bookish woman who comes to live in his house with her professor father and spinster aunt. Get out your hankies when you near the end. The mainstreaming of ghost stories can further be seen in the novels of several contemporary writers, leading perhaps to a new subgenre, the domestic ghost story. is the story of Polly Baymiller's attempt—even after her death from giving birth to her seventh child, Tip—to cherish and comfort him in the midst of loneliness, sorrow, and the pains of everyday life. Another mother who yearns to be part of her child's life from beyond the grave is found in . Eva McEwen first sees the woman and child ("the companions") when she is a child and well before she realizes that no one else can see them. The role that these two (ghosts?) play in Eva's life varies between a benevolent protectiveness and occasional hurtfulness. Livesey has many cards up her sleeve, and it's not until the very end that the reader (and Eva) understands what part the pair play in Eva's life. --Nancy Pearl (Reviewed October 15, 2002) (Library Journal, vol 127, issue 17, p120)
/* Starred Review */ A haunting and haunted fourth novel from Livesey (The Missing World, 2000, etc.), this about a woman whose life is accompanied by invisible "companions" who shape her destiny in ways both helpful and harmful.Narrator Eva McEwen's mother Barbara dies on the day of Eva's birth in 1920. When she's six, playing outside her home in the Scottish lowlands, Eva meets a silver-haired woman and a freckled girl she soon realizes can't be seen by others. Raised by her elderly father and his sister Lily (the first in a series of characters rendered with extraordinary subtlety and depth), the lonely girl takes comfort from her invisible friends but also realizes that "the presence of the companions in my life was like a hidden deformity: ugly, mysterious, and incomprehensible." The figures rescue her from menacing gypsies, but they also fling furniture around her room and get her fired from her first job. When Eva becomes a nurse in Glasgow during WWII and falls in love with plastic surgeon Samuel Rosenblum, the companions destroy her chance to marry him. Or do they? Livesey's precisely calibrated narrative, characteristically cognizant of human complexities and contradictions, reminds us that we are both subject to forces beyond our control and responsible for our lives. It may be that Eva chose to let Samuel go, though she grieves for him even after she marries kind schoolmaster Matthew and bears a daughter, Ruth. Guilt over leaving her father and Aunt Lily further shadows her life, and her mother Barbara's absence remains an aching wound. The radiant yet unsettling climax suggests that Barbara also had companions, and that Ruth will make her own choice about whether she needs this otherworldly support. This isn't a ghost story, but rather a searching examination of how we deal with our ghosts. Livesey's scrupulous prose, lyrical yet classically exact, is the perfect vehicle to convey her multilayered insights.Pitiless, deeply moving, and terrifying: another flawless work from an uncompromising artist. (Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 2001)

Margot Livesey talks about her writing, focusing on her 2009 book The House on Fortune Street.