Crossing the threshold
Helen Simonson finds success, fans with first novel
By Matthew Robb RECALLING THE INSPIRATION for her debut novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, the British-born, London School of Economics–degreed Helen Simonson notes, “I was home in New York with small children and looking for a creative outlet.” She aspired to be a “serious writer,” but her freshman attempt— 14 chapters about a comatose woman— felt so forced she shelved it. Seeking direction, “I sat down and my mind went home to Sussex,” she says. Think of Sussex, and you think lush landscapes, quaint villages and characters bristling with brilliant eccentricity. A onetime advertising executive, Simonson knew tackling a full-blown ovel would be like traversing the Himalayas, so she took baby steps. She nrolled in a writers workshop, asked questions and wrote, wrote, wrote. When she nervously read the greenest of drafts to her workshop, “everyone from the crusty professor to the angry oung future Hemingways all loved the major,” she recalls with delight. But the road got bumpy, then bruising. “You get o around 150 pages and realize that no writing workshop prepares you for the middle,” she says. “It was like carrying a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs without the bowl.” She groped her way through the dark, “hoping the characters, subplots, ideas and themes would braid themselves together by the nd.” Meanwhile, the clock ticked. “The economy was in terrible shape and it was time … to get a real job.” Sensing the walls closing in, she wrote faster and faster. “But the little person on my left shoulder kept saying, ‘You’re terrible. Everyone will hate it. Why are you even bothering?’ ” Flash forward, and today Simonson, relocated to the Washington, D.C., suburbs, is soaring on a gust of critical acclaim. “We are currently in negotiations to option the book as a Hollywood movie,” she says dreamily. “Only when the movie directors started phoning did my two teenage sons wake up and start saying, ‘Wow, Mom wrote a book!’ ” Critics and book clubs alike are hailing the novel as a masterpiece. Says author Cathleen Schine ( The Love Letter) of this smart homage to late-life romance, “This … is the best first novel I’ve read in a long, long time.” Other notables have invoked literary greats: Jane Austen, Henry James, P.G. Wodehouse. Looking to the world at large, Simonson declares we need more Major Pettigrews—dignified, man- nerly and possessing a moral compass as constant as the North Star. “One of the reasons I wrote the book is that I don’t think the values the major embodies are in any way ‘old-fashioned.’ ” Lose decency, she says, and civility and civilization are lost with it. As for Pettigrew’s romantic interest, the lovely Pakistan-born widow Mrs. Ali, Simonson is all smiles. “She is certainly the Englishwoman that all Englishwomen aspire to be and to have tea with— kind, independent, educated—and she loves books.” From Simonson’s masterful prose springs her hope that people will begin to treasure their differences, not just tolerate them. “There are plenty of people with whom we would have a lot in common if only we gave them a second look or stepped over an unfamiliar threshold,” she observes. Buoyed by success, Simonson says this is no time for idling. “I am working on another novel and, yes, the struggle is back. This time the chant reminds me that second novels never match the first,” she says. But this time she is also forging ahead with the wisdom of a New York Times bestselling author. Shuffling off on errands, she closes, “I must say that I am a delighted and committed Costco mem- ber. When you have 30 hungry kids to feed who are staying until 11 o’clock at night building a robot for school, one can always pick up dinner at Costco— and a good book.” C NO PURCHASE OR PAYMENT OF ANY KIND IS NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN THIS SWEEPSTAKES. Signed book giveaway Helen Simonson
COSTCO HAS 50 SIGNED COPIES of Helen
Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand to
give away. For a chance to win, send an
e-mail with your name and mailing address
firstname.lastname@example.org, with “Helen
Simonson” in the subject line. Or print your
name, address and daytime phone number
on a postcard or letter and send it to: Helen
Simonson, The Costco Connection, P.O. Box
34088, Seattle, WA 98124-1088.
THIS TIME OF year isn’t
known for the luxury of
having a lot of spare time
for reading. And, if you’re
like me, when you do have
time for reading, amid
the countless seasonal
festivities, you probably
want a true feel-good story.
Look no further. Helen
Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s
Last Stand is about as
delightful as novels come.
At the heart of the story
are Major Ernest Pettigrew,
a local in the small English
town of Edgecombe St. Mary,
and Jasmina Ali, a foreigner
from Pakistan. The pull of
their two cultures lures
readers through page after
page as their friendship
blossoms. The ensuing
romance is, simply put,
forced or contrived. I found
myself cheering the couple
along every step of the way.
This book is the perfect
antidote to holiday stress.
And don’t be surprised if
you end up buying a few
extra copies as gifts.
For more book picks,
see page 45.
Purchase will not improve odds of winning. Sweepstakes is sponsored
by Random House, 1745 Broadway Ave, New York, N Y 10019. Open to
legal residents of the U.S. (except Puerto Rico) who are age 18 or older at
the time of entry. One entry per household. Entries must be received by
January 3, 2011. Winners will be randomly selected and noti;ed by mail
on or before February 1, 2011. The value of the prize is $15. Void where
prohibited. Winners are responsible for all applicable federal, state and local
taxes. Odds of winning depend on the number of eligible entries received.
Employees of Costco or Random House and their families are not eligible.
Matthew Robb is an avid fan of
Regency England and country manors.
He resides near Washington, D.C.
Pennie Clark Ianniciello
Costco Book Buyer