The Summer Before the War
Author: Helen Simonson
Publisher: Random House
Genre: Historical Fiction
Hardcover Edition: 473 pages
Source: Library Copy
Author Helen Simonson is back in a big way. Her second novel is even more witty and charming than her first, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. But it is much more than witty and charming. It takes readers to a serious place to enjoy and contemplate the laughter, loss, hardships and love that life hurls at mortals as we pick out way through its minefields.
It’s Edwardian summer and England stands on the precipice of societal change. Beatrice Nash, young woman of promise in every way, arrives to be a Latin teacher at the local school in a small town in Suffolk. It’s a lovely summer in this idyllic coastal town and Aunt Agatha takes the young woman under her wing. Agatha is a feisty leader in the community, an eccentric woman with two handsome nephews and a husband who works in the foreign office.
Seldom do such stories from history focus on the weeks prior to the full onslaught of war. Even less often do we read the stories of refugees and minorities caught up in local situations. Here again, (as in several recent novels) we view not only colorful characters, but the stringent class demarcations of British social life. Of further interest are the strong women in this story, finding their way through the rules and customs expected of women at the time of the First World War.
The writing is a delight to read. Detail, dialogue, description provide a wonderful scaffolding for a suspenseful story. The decided contrast between the pastoral village and the horrors of war add strength to this portrait of place, time, and people. Why are humans surprised at the carnage war brings? They seem to expect exciting adventure and then….. It is a lesson not learned and the World War I era provides one of the clearest of the lessons.
Book Clubs take note. This is a page-turner and a glorious read. Certainly it is well worthy of your consideration. As novels go, it has it all: plot, characters, setting, romance, poetic prose, happy and sad fighting for space on the Folkestone docks. Enjoy.