Helen Simonson’s new novel is a great summer read, and not just because it has “summer” in the title. The Summer Before the War takes a number of interesting turns with enough suspense to keep you reading when you really should be doing something else. There are many likeable characters–and a few not-so–and the historical detail, never heavy-handed, illuminates the impact of social class, the looming Great War, and the limited role in society for a young woman.
This is the story of Beatrice Nash, who has been hired to teach Latin to the village children of Rye, England. She is in her early 20s and grieving the loss of her beloved father who broadened her mind through education and travel. Teaching is her route to financial independence and the ability to write; probable spinsterhood is embraced as a fair trade-off for a life of her choosing, of reading and writing.
World War I changes everything and everyone, beginning with the village’s acceptance of Belgian refugees and the calls to young men to serve their country. But even patriotism and military service are subject to societal pressures and questionable ethics, and no family completely escapes heartbreak and loss.
Which characters become Beatrice’s friends and allies, and who emerges to thwart her plans moves the story at a brisk pace. And as the characters develop there are satisfying transformations from nemesis to friend, and disappointments as those she admires show their true colors. One of the things I liked best is that no character is perfect; each fails at some point to live up to their own standards and beliefs, or to love generously when it is difficult to do so.
I hated to finish the book, because I had grown quite attached to Beatrice, Hugh, Aunt Agatha, and others in the story. (I felt the same way about some of the characters in Simonson’s first novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.) The Summer Before the War was a wonderful first entry on my summer reading program log, and I hope it makes it onto yours.