Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Book Review: The Summer Before the War

The Summer Before the War, the second novel by Helen Simonson (who wrote Major Pettigrew's Last Stand), places itself at the end of the idyllic (for some) Edwardian age, when the world is clearly starting to change - and then changes a lot in a hurry with the start of the First World War. The main character, a young woman named Beatrice, moves to a small coastal town to teach Latin in the aftermath of her father's death, and there begins to sort out her place in the world and to put together a new family from the people she finds around her, especially an older woman named Agatha who supported her controversial appointment and Agatha's husband and nephews. It's sort of Downton Abbey meets Home Fires, using the war as a way to map the changes in society, though (unlike Home Fires) the narrative actually moves to the front at one point rather than remaining among those left at home.

I especially liked the way the novel dealt with the changing world in which the characters found themselves and their reactions to that, from the scandal of hiring a female Latin teacher to a subplot about Belgian refugees that feels very relevant right now. Most of the characters realize that the traditional class system is breaking down, and they're threatened or empowered by this; Beatrice and Hugh both believe that educating working class children is important, but the amount of progress they can really make there is limited by the conventional views of others in the community. The same could be said for Beatrice's feminist leanings, and I actually liked those limits - I get frustrated when a character in a historical novel seems to have thoroughly modern beliefs and to act outside of the bounds of her society, and Simonson did a good job of balancing her more progressive and more traditional characters here.

I went into The Summer Before the War primed to really love a book - the last few things I'd read had ranged from frustratingly mediocre to really not good - and it didn't let me down. I loved Beatrice's personal journey as well as that of her found family, and her restrained but powerful romance with Agatha's nephew Hugh. And the tone of the novel was pitch perfect: quiet and genuinely moving without being melodramatic or treacly, smart and funny while never losing sight of its grave concerns. Because this is a war book, and not everyone Beatrice loves will make it out of the trenches. Prepare yourself for some tears. In a good way.

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