Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson, was a glorious book. I loved it entirely. Its existence seems so improbable I love it all the more.
In the small village of Edgecombe St. Mary in the English countryside, the retired Major Ernest Pettigrew lives alone. His wife is dead, his son is a banker in London, and his younger brother lives in the next town over. When his brother dies unexpectedly, he becomes friends with Mrs. Jasmina Ali, the Pakistani village shopkeeper. They both love books and a good cup of tea, and both have been left behind by the deaths of their spouses. As the friendship between Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali grows and subtly, almost imperceptibly, becomes something more, the village looks on with a certain amount of suspicion. As Mrs. Ali says late in the book, "A couple may have nothing in common but the color of their skin and the country of their ancestors, but the whole world would see them as compatible." These two have a much more real set of common interests and opinions, but in the face of the world that may not be enough.
Major Pettigrew is wonderful. He is old-fashioned in all the best ways--courtly, honorable, and decorous. He has a fabulously dry sense of humour. He is constantly being thwarted by people--his son Roger, his sister-in-law Marjorie, the village ladies, all of whom just don't seem to see the world the same way the Major does, don't understand how to be truly sensible and civilized. You cannot help loving Major Pettigrew. Mrs. Ali shares many of the Major's views on the world, and she has an equally dry sense of humour. It is this that makes the book so funny. Both of them are constantly giving people well-deserved rebukes for their behaviour, but they do it so dryly that no one ever notices.
The book is about family, both the inherited and created kinds. It is about being happy and making happiness, about race and class and appearances. It does all this so effectively because it is at heart a damn good story. It is wonderfully romantic, the more so because it is the story of romance in unexpected places.
The book is surprising in many ways. The main characters are older. The book is unafraid to assert values the younger characters think are old-fashioned and unnecessary, unafraid to be quiet (though it's not undramatic), unafraid to make judgments on people's foibles, while still accepting their foibles as very human. I can't think of any other book that is quite like this one, which makes it so much more valuable. I really can't quite express how much I love this book. I stayed up until nearly one in the morning to finish it. It's going on my list of books to foist on people. I don't know where I first read about it, though I know it's made the rounds in blogland, but seriously, thank you, whoever recommended it.