NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • “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
The bestselling author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand returns with a breathtaking novel of love on the eve of World War I that reaches far beyond the small English town in which it is set.
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE WASHINGTON POST AND NPR
East Sussex, 1914. It is the end of England’s brief Edwardian summer, and everyone agrees that the weather has never been so beautiful. Hugh Grange, down from his medical studies, is visiting his Aunt Agatha, who lives with her husband in the small, idyllic coastal town of Rye. Agatha’s husband works in the Foreign Office, and she is certain he will ensure that the recent saber rattling over the Balkans won’t come to anything. And Agatha has more immediate concerns; she has just risked her carefully built reputation by pushing for the appointment of a woman to replace the Latin master.
When Beatrice Nash arrives with one trunk and several large crates of books, it is clear she is significantly more freethinking—and attractive—than anyone believes a Latin teacher should be. For her part, mourning the death of her beloved father, who has left her penniless, Beatrice simply wants to be left alone to pursue her teaching and writing.
But just as Beatrice comes alive to the beauty of the Sussex landscape and the colorful characters who populate Rye, the perfect summer is about to end. For despite Agatha’s reassurances, the unimaginable is coming. Soon the limits of progress, and the old ways, will be tested as this small Sussex town and its inhabitants go to war.
Praise for The Summer Before the War
“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
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
Helen Simonson's vivid writing transports us to the idyllic English coastal town of Rye in the summer of 1914. At elegant garden parties, ladies in silks and rakish young men recently returned from travels on the Continent sip champagne and exchange gossip, while meddling matrons subtly wield power over tea. We were pulled in by Simonson’s genuinely funny and likable characters, whose realness made us feel the human cost of war that much more deeply. The Summer Before the War starts out as a sparkling period drama, but it left us thinking about duty, friendship, and the fragility of everyday life.
Simonson's dense follow-up to the bestselling Major Pettigrew's Last Stand focuses on gender, class, and social mores in the town of Rye in Sussex, England, at the dawn of World War I. Following the death of her father, who raised her to be intelligent and worldly, writer Beatrice Nash looks forward to tutoring three boys in Latin before she begins her position at school in the fall. Her advocate is the shrewd Agatha Kent, a discreet progressive who's married to John, a senior official in the military. The childless couple love their grown nephews, Hugh Grange, who is destined to be a doctor, and Daniel Bookham, a handsome poet who hopes to move to Paris and start his own journal with a friend. As a woman, Beatrice doesn't have much clout, nearly losing her job to nepotism and being dismissed by her favorite author, her relatives, and her dad's publishing house. Simonson does a great job crafting the novel's world. It's a large book, and the plot takes its time to get going, but the story becomes engaging after Germany invades Belgium and Rye takes in refugees. Simonson's writing is restrained but effective, especially when making quiet revelations. A heartbreaking but satisfying ending seems fitting for a story about the social constructs that unfairly limit people and their potential.
Great Period Piece
It was the cover of The Summer Before the War that caught my eye, and it was Simonson’s descriptive writing that kept me reading. Most, but not all, of the story takes place in the summer before the start of WWI. The plot proceeds at a leisurely pace just as one might expect the lives of the upper-crust society in a small town would during the summer. While the pace is slow and tranquil, the pithy repartee of the main characters is probably the most accurate depiction of conversation between men and women written by a modern day writer. Simonson’s scene set up reminded me of Hardy, while her dialogue reminded me of Wilde. The tale has an old-world feel to it.
I appreciated Simonson’s exploration of several social issues: women’s rights (or lack thereof), homosexuality, divorce, pregnancy out of wedlock, and the strict social class structure of society in early 20th century England. The era seemed to be filled with judgment, and the smallest of slights or presumption would make someone a social outcast. The entanglement of town politics and social elite is as thick as overgrown vines on a castle turret. The restrictions on women working, deciding not to marry and even managing their own assets was frustrating to read, but alas, accurately portrayed.
Rye, in The Summer Before the War, is filled with an interesting group of villagers, all of whom will be adored by fans of Downton Abby and similar period pieces. There are grand dames, German Barons, an American author (perhaps modeled after Henry James), as well as gypsies and Belgian refugees. The heroine of the tale, Miss Beatrice Nash, is one of the most interesting characters. The recent loss of her father forces her to either marry or find employment. Marriage would give her, or should I say her husband, access to her trust, but it would clip her wings. She is used to a high level of autonomy since she spent a great deal of her youth acting as her father’s travel companion and assistant. I was confounded as to why a father who obviously acknowledged his daughter’s intelligence and raised her unconventionally would then clip her wings by placing a stipulation on her inheritance.
The turn –of-the-century angst is so much more enjoyable than that of modern times (I’m thinking of Being Earnest while writing this), but the eventual HEA is no less satisfactory than a modern-day romance. While the pace of the story doesn’t match the frenetic lifestyle of the 21st century, The Summer Before the War will appeal to readers who enjoy period pieces as well history buffs and lovers of the classics.
Not as good as Major Pettigrew
I would recommend her other book, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, over this book. While it is wonderfully descriptive of life in small town England before WWI, the plot seemed very linear and somewhat thudded to an end. Also during a large segment of the book you are waiting to see how the main character will do at her teaching job and this plot line is never fully developed. It was OK but Major Pettigrew was much better.
What a wonderful story, I had a difficult time putting the book down. The characters were believable and so alive. This is a great summer read.