Two books I wavered about reading I ended up really liking. I had The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender on my TBR list for a while, then took it off, then was in the library picking up a book to listen to in the car and there it was on the "New Books" display so I grabbed it. I purchased Major Pettigrew's Last Stand and put it near the top of the TBR pile, then moved it down, then moved it off the pile and back on the shelf, but after reading 84, Charing Cross Road I was in the mood for something British...so out came Major Pettigrew again.
The premise of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is that at age 9 Rose begin to be able to feel the emotions of others from the food they have prepared. When she feels her own mother's sadness, loneliness, and disappointment she is devastated. Over the years she develops tricks to avoid food cooked by people, especially ones she knows, and eats lots of vending machine snacks and prepared meals. These are by no means satisfying, but they are cold and remote rather than heavily emotional. Even a piece of toast buttered by her brother is overwhelming. When Rose finds a restaurant whose chef is content and loves cooking she gets a job washing dishes so she can eat there all the time. Meanwhile, while Rose learns to get by her brother is discovering his own ability to disappear in a unique way. While Rose must endure unsought intimacies with people, her brother discovers the ability to withdraw from others completely. Their opposite powers are a commentary on the way we must all navigate relationships and closeness with others.
I originally thought Major Pettigrew's Last Stand was historical fiction, instead it takes place in contemporary Edgecombe St. Mary where Major Pettigrew leads a satisfying but sometimes lonely life as a widower. This changes when he becomes friends with the local convenience shop owner Mrs. Ali, a widow. Even in modern times, this causes a stir because she is of Pakistani heritage though she was born in Cambridge. The racism and mistreatment are generally subtle, but at times the townspeople are significantly racist and often without realizing why their behavior is offensive. Major Pettigrew is a proper English, retired officer, who is appalled by a great deal of modern behavior. He is charming and thoughful and a bit cumudgeonly, but we are thrilled as he is swept up by love. Mrs. Ali is well-read and well-spoken and fiesty and we root for her too as she falls for Major Pettigrew. While the book contains social commentary and a good bit of humor, it is the love story that makes it wonderful.
Reading 84, Charing Cross Road made me think about my preference for fiction, as Helene Hanff who wrote many of the letters that make up the narrative did not care for unreal people doing things that did not really happen. While I like non-fiction, I believe that the power and importance of fiction lies in what it shows us about people who are not like us as much as it shows us the truth of what we are. The power to literally taste feelings in food is an element of magical realism, but we really should be more attuned to the feelings of others. Similarly, Major Pettigrew live in a society that is becoming more and more old-fashioned, but is preserved in a book like this that mirrors the reality. Fiction can be just as informative and educational as non-fiction, but it can also capture possibilities in a way non-fiction cannot.