Friday, March 18, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

I received this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Helen Simonson, author of the wonderful novel Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, has a new book: The Summer Before the War. The novel follows several inhabitants of a small English town, Rye, in Sussex from just before the start of WWI until the war’s end.

The main protagonist is Beatrice Nash, an intelligent young woman of twenty-five, recently orphaned by the death of her father, a professor. Beatrice had spent her life following her father around and serving as his secretary. (Her mother was long dead.) He left her with an inheritance to be doled out in tiny increments until she married when she would receive the whole thing. Beatrice has no intention of marrying. So, to support herself, she takes a position as a Latin teacher in the Rye high school.

Apparently, it is unheard of to have a female teaching Latin at this level. But Beatrice is championed by one of the movers and shakers of Rye, Agatha Kent, who sees no reason why a qualified woman should not have the job. Agatha becomes one of Beatrice’s close friends and supporters. As a bonus, Agatha has two nephews, Hugh Grange and Daniel Bookham, who visit her frequently. Hugh is a kind-hearted gentlemanly sort who is in training to become a surgeon. Daniel is an exceptionally handsome snob who prides himself on his charm, and who is a poet-in-training. Hugh and Daniel are as close as brothers.

Beatrice has some trouble settling in as she meets the people of Rye, but with the support of Agatha and her extended family, she does get settled, despite the disadvantage of being female. Before things get too comfortable, the war breaks out.

There are essentially two things about the war that disrupt the town. The first is the arrival of several Belgian refugees. The second is that some of the town’s sons are bustled off to war. The rest of the townsfolk occupy themselves with various home front activities. And everyone worries about what will happen to Rye, to England, and to their loved ones.

This is a sweet story about small town dynamics and how people act at times of crisis. There is a love story—or two—central to the plot. The characters are well developed and, for the most part, sympathetic enough to make a reader care how the story will turn out. However, it’s a quiet book. I finished a couple days ago and was too busy to write my review immediately, and the book is already fading in my memory. The pace is steady but a bit slow, and the various scenarios play out in a rather predictable fashion (although there is a surprise at the end that I didn’t see coming). In the end, I enjoyed it but was not as wowed as I was by Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.