This is a charming novel written by first-time novelist Helen Simonson - a native of East Sussex, England who has resided in the U.S. for over twenty years. Her website is an interesting read and includes a breath-taking header picture of the white chalk cliffs of this region.
The novel opens in East Sussex and concerns a 60-something retired major - Ernest Pettigrew - who is grieving the recent loss of his brother Bertie. Major Pettigrew lost his wife not many years before and continues to reside in their pretty English cottage in the village of Edgecome St Mary. Although he has a son, extended family and several golf buddies and neighbours, it is clear that he is lonely and the death of his brother brings this to the fore. It is on the day of his receiving this news that he begins to view the village shopkeeper, Jasmina Ali, in a new light. She too recently lost her husband and they begin to bond over their love of poetry, Kipling and the beauty of the English countryside. Mrs Ali awakens a slow burning passion in the Major and inspires a new love of life and friendship.
The novel's main focus is this gentle love story but it skilfully introduces various subplots and brings them each to a satisfying conclusion. There is the matter of the twin Churchill guns - given to Major Pettigrew's father by the Maharajah - with one gun bequeathed to the Major and the other to his brother Bertie. Upon Bertie's death, both guns were to be reunited and passed to the Major but Bertie's family have other ideas. There is the friction between the Major and his self-involved son Roger and his new girlfriend. Roger is only concerned with profit and prestige and is rarely able to communicate successfully with his father.
Mrs Ali has her share of recent problems, involving her nephew and her husband's pushy family. Added to this, the village seems to be under threat by property developers who mean to transform the calm and character of the Major's home.
I found this a highly enjoyable read and an excellent first novel. Indeed, it is so polished and well executed that it is hard to believe that this is Ms Simonson's first effort. All of the characters are well drawn and their actions and dialogue believable. I became fond of the Major (except for his duck shooting!) and Mrs Ali early on and really despised his son Roger for his shallow nature. East Sussex is beautifully and lovingly portrayed and the seaside town of Eastbourne is easily recognisable in the guise of Hazelbourne-on-Sea with its beautiful long manicured lawns filled with bright and vibrant flowers. Ms Simonson's descriptions of English locations and English characters are spot on and many a dialogue is spiced with a hint of humour, particularly with the Major's dry wit.
I took my time in reading this story and found it to be perfectly paced. It is not a short book at 358 pages but I found the author's juggling of the various plots enjoyable and I let her take her time in leading me to the happy ending. It is a delicate love story building to a passionate revelation and the tempo seemed to fit the grace and poise of the main protagonists.
The lovely Penelope at Bloomsbury very kindly sent me this review copy and I was happy that I got to spend time in the country with these quirky, warm characters. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves gentle humour and a well-written tale of English village life and its foibles.