We now have three generations of voracious readers in my family: I am sandwiched between my book-loving mother, and my book-loving teenage daughter. Rather than going to the library, my mother buys novels and then recycles them to us, in a heroic effort to keep her local independent bookstore from going under. Each time I visit her, I find a stack of books next to the guest bed, and stuff them in my carry-on.
This summer, I scored a wonderful new hardback novel, and before I could get at it, my daughter grabbed it off my book pile. “I didn’t realize until I was hooked that this is an OLD PEOPLE love story,” she remarked a few hours later, peering at me with wide eyes from behind the half-finished novel. True enough, the main characters in Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand are mature, but they are also funny, intellectual, and engaged in a passionate interfaith love story. My daughter raced through the book–then I did the same.
For years, I have been reviewing new interfaith fiction, while the list of non-fiction on interfaith love remains frustratingly short. For some reason, our fiction writers recognize love across cultural and religious barriers as a central theme in our globalizing culture, a very contemporary theme with ancient resonance. The treatment in fiction of these issues can be far more nuanced, more elegant, and more sympathetic than the territorial posturing of non-fiction writers, who usually have an axe or two to grind on the subject of interfaith marriage.
In any case, I urge you to immediately buy, borrow, or (sigh) download Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, an utterly engaging first novel by British author Helen Simonson, an expatriate now living outside Washington. In her book, Major Pettigrew, a very proper, lonely widower, falls for Mrs. Ali, a Muslim Pakistani widow and the shopkeeper in their tiny English village. Adventures both hilarious and poignant ensue.
At one point, Mrs. Ali flees the village, and the village Vicar delivers to Major Pettigrew words that many of us, in interfaith families, will find all too familiar. He attempts to comfort the Major, saying: “…it’s for the best, believe me.” He goes on to describe the interfaith couples he has married, and the opposition they face from their own families, and how they come to him for guidance. “They want me to promise they’ll be together in heaven, when the truth is I can’t even offer both a plot in the cemetery. They expect me to soft-pedal Jesus as if he’s just one of many possible options.”
Simonson touches on some very real issues here. Many cemeteries exclude interfaith couples from family plots. Many Christian clergy, and family members, fret that the Christian partner in an interfaith marriage will abandon Jesus, or that the non-Christian partner will not go to heaven.
Simonson’s characters are complex, never one-dimensional, and I even felt a bit of sympathy for the Vicar–he represents one of the last vestiges of a cultural empire, trying to toe a fast-vanishing line as he makes his best case against interfaith love. But (spoiler alert!) I was relieved to discover that he cannot stop the Major, in the end, from loving or pursuing Mrs. Ali. Those of us in happy interfaith families will be anxious to discover whether or not this charming couple will prevail, and join our ranks. Thanks for passing this book on, Mom!