You are about to travel to Edgecombe St. Mary, a small village in the English countryside filled with rolling hills, thatched cottages, and a cast of characters both hilariously original and as familiar as the members of your own family. Among them is Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired), the unlikely hero of Helen Simonson's wondrous debut. Wry, courtly, opinionated, and completely endearing, Major Pettigrew is one of the most indelible characters in contemporary fiction, and from the very first page of this remarkable novel he will steal your heart. The Major leads a quiet life valuing the proper things that Englishmen have lived by for generations: honor, duty, decorum, and a properly brewed cup of tea. But then 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 village society insists on embracing him as the quintessential local and her as the permanent foreigner. Can their relationship survive the risks one takes when pursuing happiness in the face of culture and tradition?
At first this book bored me. I got through one or two discs and almost gave up. I didn't like the Major - he was opinionated and stuffy - and nothing else about the story captured my attention. But then. I don't know exactly what it was that happened but something caught me and I fell headlong into this story. Turns out that I really did like the Major after all, in spite of his flaws, and I was rooting for him to overcome his own prejudices and those of his neighbors. But then. Say what?! Things at Mrs. Ali's house went a bit batty to say the least. And in my opinion the bit of violence that occurred only served to reinforce stereotypes about Muslims. (Did anyone feel that way? I'm talking about what the aunt did ...) But then. I got into the story again and was rooting for the Major and Mrs. Ali.
And it bugs me that the book brought up a very important issue then simply brushed it aside: can a mixed religion marriage really work? The Major's minister brings this up in conversation at one point. He complains that parishioners come to him asking for his blessing on their marriage to someone of a completely different religion and they are hurt when he questions their decision. The minister wants to know if he is supposed to deny what he believes to be true, or if the couple is each going to deny what they believe in order to be happy together. The conversation ends there and the end of the book doesn't give any better of an ending to the discussion in my opinion. I mean, if people are nominally religious and marry outside their faith, that shouldn't end up being an issue in the marriage. But if people are true followers of their religion then the fact that their spouse believes something totally different will cause huge issues, even if those issues are never openly discussed. (Am I alone in thinking this?!)
So on the whole I did enjoy this book but it also had some flaws. I'm glad I kept listening to it as I really enjoyed parts of it, but at the same time the ending - though I thought it fit the story and was beautifully done - will continue to bug me for reasons mentioned above.