By Helen Simonson
368 pages; Random House
The shy romance between a retired British officer and a local Pakistani shopkeeper is the main plotline of Helen Simonson's Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. But this delightful debut novel is as much a gently p.c. look at the British class system tucked inside a sly comedy of manners as it is a love story. Curmudgeonly Major Ernest Pettigrew is a widower bewildered by the ways of the modern world, personified largely by his insufferably social-climbing, metrosexual adult son. ("Roger could be a decorator," Roger's American girlfriend tells Pettigrew. "'Really!' said the Major. 'That's quite an accusation.'") Mostly, Pettigrew is content to play golf at his snooty club and brood about how to win back a family heirloom still in the possession of his late brother's wife. But when he finds himself drawn to the widow Jasmina Ali—they begin reading Kipling together in the afternoons—he becomes aware "of a lighter step and easier heart," not to mention the hypocrisy that lives beneath the surface of this oh-so-proper town. There are madcap subplots, too, but the beauty of this engaging book is in the characters, particularly Mrs. Ali, who should only be onstage a bit more often. Elegant, refined, and full of grace, she is also shockingly, adorably straightforward. When Roger calls her his father's "lady friend," she smiles and says, "I refuse to be referred to by a term so oily with double entendre.... I prefer 'lover.'" She's hardly a tart, but this kind of aside goes a long way toward balancing a sweet story about the unexpected miracle of later-life love.