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The Summer Before the War: A Novel Paperback – February 21, 2017
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“A novel to cure your Downton Abbey withdrawal . . . a delightful story about nontraditional romantic relationships, class snobbery and the everybody-knows-everybody complications of living in a small community.”—The Washington Post
“What begins as a study of a small-town society becomes a compelling account of war and its aftermath.”—Woman’s Day
“This witty character study of how a small English town reacts to the 1914 arrival of its first female teacher offers gentle humor wrapped in a hauntingly detailed story.”—Good Housekeeping
“Perfect for readers in a post–Downton Abbey slump . . . The gently teasing banter between two kindred spirits edging slowly into love is as delicately crafted as a bone-china teacup. . . . More than a high-toned romantic reverie for Anglophiles—though it serves the latter purpose, too.”—The Seattle Times
“[Helen Simonson’s] characters are so vivid, it’s as if a PBS series has come to life. There’s scandal, star-crossed love and fear, but at its heart, The Summer Before the War is about loyalty, love and family.”—AARP: The Magazine
“At once haunting and effervescent, The Summer Before the War demonstrates the sure hand of a master. Helen Simonson’s characters enchant us, her English countryside beguiles us, and her historical intelligence keeps us at the edge of our seats. This luminous story of a family, a town, and a world in their final moments of innocence is as lingering and lovely as a long summer sunset.”—Annie Barrows, author of The Truth According to Us and co-author of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
“Helen Simonson has outdone herself in this radiant follow-up to Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. The provincial town of Rye, East Sussex, in the days just before and after the Great War is so vividly drawn it fairly vibrates. The depth and sensitivity with which she weighs the steep costs and delicate bonds of wartime—and not just for the young men in the trenches, but for every changed life and heart—reveal the full mastery of her storytelling. Simonson is like a Jane Austen for our day and age—she is that good—and The Summer Before the War is nothing short of a treasure.”—Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun
“A bright confection of a book morphs into a story of dignity and backbone. . . . This book is beautifully plotted and morally astute.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Simonson’s second novel paints a sensitive, witty, luminous portrait of England at the outbreak of World War I.”—Shelf Awareness
“This novel is just the ticket for fans of Simonson’s debut, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, and for any reader who enjoys leisurely fiction steeped in the British past.”—Booklist
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Helen Simonson was born in England and spent her teenage years in a small village in East Sussex. A graduate of the London School of Economics, she has spent the last three decades in the United States and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. Simonson is married, with two grown sons, and is the author of the New York Times bestselling debut novel Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. This is her second novel.
From the Hardcover edition.
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“The Summer Before the War” provides an excellent portrait of the manners, mannerisms, and social milieu of early twentieth century England. Beatrice Nash, an educated young woman, has been engaged to teach Latin in Rye’s local grammar school. The daughter of a distinguished scholar, Beatrice is more educated than was common for a young woman during the period in which this novel takes place. When talking to her nephews and reflecting attitudes of the time, Agatha – Beatrice’s sponsor and the matriarch of the novel’s primary family – says of Beatrice “…I may be progressive, but I would never hire a pretty teacher …” Telling Beatrice that they must remain in the neighbor’s good graces. “…I’m afraid your independence, and my efforts in appointed office, both depend on our titled friend …” Hugh Grange, Agatha’s nephew and an aspiring surgeon, and his cousin Daniel Bookham, who is slated to go into the Foreign Office, have decidedly different viewpoints of Beatrice. Nevertheless, both are attracted to Beatrice.
When World War I breaks out, life for each of the characters changes in drastic, sometimes unforeseen ways. A surgeon on the front lines, Hugh longs for tranquility and a less chaotic world. “…The dream of acclaim and fortune …had been rendered insignificant and empty in the face of daily carnage …” Both Hugh and Daniel begin to understand their personal rivalry is insignificant when compared to world events. “…he thought it sad and strange that it would take a war to wipe away the cold formalities of life …” “War makes our needs so much smaller …In ordinary life, I never understood how much pleasure it gives me to see you …”
Characters drive the action and the emotion of “The Summer Before the War”; while war scenes are violent, they are not gratuitously descriptive. Focusing on the psychological impact of battles and wartime deprivation make this novel more relatable. Helen Simonson captures individual differences and class distinctions while maintaining a respect for each one of the characters. Some will develop and mature, some will emerge as cruel and callous individuals, and some will rise above their station to perform extraordinary deeds.
“The Summer Before the War” is a lengthy novel, but one that is worth your reading time. Language and situations are appropriate for ‘tween readers; the novel may provide some perspective on events surrounding World War I and British society during that era.
For some reason, a woman teaching Latin is relatively shocking. I am not sure why as there are two other women teachers but for some reason Latin is a no-no. The story of her appointment to the job is one of the funniest scenes I've read in a long time. Beatrice, also, to everyone's horror rides a bicycle and is fiercely independent and competent. She's taken under the wing of a town leader, Agatha Kent, who becomes one of my very characters ever. She is so diplomatic, loving and full of life. Agatha has also raised two nephews, Hugh and Daniel, both interesting characters. In fact the town is full of interesting characters including the idiotic wife of the mayor.
The story is full of women trying to fly on their own wings and it is just 6 years later that American women got the right to vote. It is a time of great change and limits are being tested even in the small town of Rye. The town decides to help in the upcoming War effort by taking in Belgian refugees and are then horrified to discover families want to stay to together and not be parceled out one at a time. The wry humor is delightful. There is also a group of gypsies involved who had color to the story.
And as the year progresses, change comes slowly and painfully. Friendships are made and class barriers start to fall. Innocence is lost and things are never quite the same. It's a lovely, lovely story that so accurately describes the times (at least in my opinion) that it takes my breath away. It is a slow moving book in the way real life is. I loved every minute of it.
I highly recommend it.
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