As a little girl, I matched love with stories. Into the world of books, where magic is the norm, two people overcome obstacles and then “live happily ever after.” When small, when that ending arrived, I wondered no more about what came next.
As I grew up, I puzzled over the “after.”
“What will we find to talk about?” George asks his father on the morning of his wedding in “Our Town.”
I came to realize that the “after” is not a map quest, but rather the unformed portion of an 18th century map of the continental United States.
“After,” within my own life, the lives of family and friends, and in books, was uncharted territory. There was no single superhighway that took people easily from youth to age, in love. Some people get rerouted, with the detours of divorce or death yielding unexpected options. Others, on cruise control, stay in relationships that remain steady. For many, the birth of a grandchild ignites dormant passion. The shapes of “after” I saw all around me seemed predictable, family-based. Few ways existed for the family-poor to re-enter love.
New ways to consider the “after” are introduced in “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” (Random House, 2010). Author Helen Simonson surprised me, as she breaks the stereotypes of love. The main character is so stiff-necked that he cannot be introduced to anyone without including his military title. On the day of his brother’s funeral, the Major views his family members in a fresh light: His sister-in-law and his upwardly mobile son are preoccupied with matters completely unrelated to grief. Surprisingly, kindness peeps out from unexpected places in the days following his brother’s death. The Major’s willingness to yield, even a bit, to his own vulnerability, is the beginning of his transformation.
Books offer opportunities for journeys into the skins of other people, and in this book, the author explores love by introducing vital, sardonic and evolving characters. Each one tries to figure out past, present and future loves. The wry one-liners that emerge from the lips of every character bemuse. The book’s setting is Edgecombe St. Mary, a small village in England rooted in the old ways. Each scene contains sights, smells and ideas that disconnect the reader from predictable expectations. In plot twists that defy convention, the reader is taken on a journey that begins with comic individuality but morphs into unexpected juxtapositions, in which the mind delights.
Love in our later lives: We may imagine it to be a stereopticon, viewed only through the special equipment of spouse, children and grandchildren. For those missing one or more of those, it might seem that love is only in the past. However, some of us learn that love, with its unmistakable intoxication and insanity, can appear in many forms.
On our own, when living in a beloved city, traveling or getting a new puppy, we can be surprised by emotions as luscious as the first love, or in marriage to a beloved, deceased spouse. On our own, we are free to give ourselves over to the delirium of discovery, which tingles as amazingly as does traditional love. On his own, Major Pettigrew comes to the realization that love is not out of his reach. Instead, it has come to him, in spite of himself. With the wonder of a child first experiencing a soaring feeling when seeing a fish jump, the Major falls in love. And – as Simonson takes us along with the Major – so, too, do we.