“The Summer Before the War” by Helen Simonson

The Summer Before the WarI probably would not have picked up The Summer Before the War had I not been such a fan of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson’s debut novel, a thoroughly delightful comedy of manners about a retired Army officer and his unlikely relationship with a Pakistani shopkeeper. Unfortunately, Summer is a bit of a sophomore slump; if, like me, you’ve read more than a few other novels set in the run-up to and early months of World War I, you’ll recognize the familiar beats: young women presenting white feathers to men who aren’t quick enough to enlist; underaged boys running off to the recruiters; pomp and pageantry giving way to disillusionment and death. Oh, and don’t forget the rigidity of the class structure and the small-minded gossip running rampant in small English towns.

The novel opens with Beatrice Nash, a schoolteacher in her early twenties, arriving in the picturesque coastal town of Rye in Sussex. Beatrice, orphaned after the death of her father, a prominent author and scholar, has no private fortune to fall back on; opportunities were limited for single women at that time, and the fact that a female has been hired to teach Latin at the local grammar school is highly controversial. Her patron in Rye, Agatha Kent, prides herself on being forward-thinking, but even that has its limits: Beatrice’s aunt “took pains to assure me she’s quite plain,” says Agatha before Beatrice makes her entrance. “I may be progressive, but I would never hire a pretty teacher.”

Of course, Beatrice turns out to be somewhat less plain than advertised, and she strikes up a friendship with Agatha’s nephew Hugh, who is in training to become a surgeon—and hopes to get engaged to his mentor’s dim but pretty daughter. Also in the mix is Hugh’s cousin Daniel, a sensitive, handsome poet planning to start a literary magazine, though his plans are quickly scuttled by the war.

At almost 500 pages, this is a long and rather slow-moving book, as languorous as a summer Sunday until several soapy plotlines suddenly spring up in the last couple hundred pages. I kept reading because I wanted to find out what would happen to Beatrice, who is a thoroughly likable protagonist, but in the end, things pretty much turned out the way I figured they would—you can try guessing which characters will not survive the war, and you’ll probably be correct. The Summer Before the War has its virtues, but in the end, it didn’t provide a fresh enough angle on the the time period and the “loss of innocence” narrative to justify recommending it, except perhaps to younger readers for whom this material will not seem as familiar.

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“Modern Lovers” by Emma Straub

modern loversWhen I started reading Modern Lovers, I went through the following thought process: Oh no. This book is about rich people who live in Brooklyn. In a rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood. One of the characters is a Realtor. And another one owns a locavore restaurant. Ugh. And yet, I kept reading… and by the end of the book’s 353 pages, not only was I completely won over, I was sorry to say goodbye.

That’s partly because the book is so incredibly wise about what it’s like to be in your 40s and looking back at the mistakes you’ve made along the way (this, despite the fact that the author is in her mid-30s). And perhaps because I read it at just the right time, August, which is when much of the action takes place, enveloping the reader in that melancholy feeling of summer’s end.

The novel revolves around three couples: Elizabeth and Andrew and their next-door neighbors, Zoe and Jane, as well as their respective teenaged children, Harry and Ruby. Elizabeth, Andrew and Zoe were in a band together in the early 90s, when they were all students at Oberlin. The band also featured a magnetic young woman named Lydia, who went on to solo success before dying at the age of 27. Now Elizabeth is a successful Realtor in her neighborhood of Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, while Zoe and Jane own a popular restaurant. As for Andrew, he may be in his late 40s, but he’s still trying to find himself; thanks to inherited wealth, he’s never had to worry about earning a living. After stints as an ESL teacher and magazine writer, “Andrew thought he’d do an apprenticeship at a butcher shop or with a woodworker. Something with his hands.” Instead, he winds up getting involved with a sort of new-agey community that moves into the neighborhood, led by a charismatic leader who presides over a cultlike group of lithe millennial yoginis.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Andrew’s son Harry and Zoe and Jane’s daughter Ruby appear to be falling for each other, and a movie producer is trying to get a biopic about Lydia off the ground, reminding her surviving bandmates of their lost youth. Straub recounts the interweaving stories in short chapters, making the book fly by as quickly as a perfect late-summer evening. The ending, like autumn, arrives too soon; you want to linger in its world for just a little longer before you have to sober up and return to your adult responsibilities.

“Brain Storm” by Elaine Viets

Brain Storm by Elaine VietsAlmost a decade ago, Elaine Viets had a stroke. I didn’t know her personally, but I was a fan of her popular Dead-End Job mystery series. The sixth Dead-End Job book, Murder With Reservations, was just about to come out, and Viets had planned to go out on book tour to promote it. In a heartwarming demonstration of Viets’ status as a beloved member of the mystery community, authors and booksellers all over the country banded together to support her and promote her new book.

The story has a happy ending: Viets recovered, Murder With Reservations was a hit, and she went on to write many more books. Now, she’s finally written about the stroke that almost killed her; her alter ego is not an author but a death investigator. Even people who have read more crime novels than they can count may not know what a DI is, but it’s a real job, Viets told The Big Thrill: they “are professionals who perform independent, scientific investigations of unattended deaths. The DI takes charge of the body at the scene… The body belongs to the DI until it goes to the medical examiner.” Viets took a DI training course in preparation for writing the book.

DI Angela Richman works in an upscale St. Louis suburb where a handful of old-money families rule the roost. While investigating the death in a car accident of the daughter of one of those powerful families, Angela is incapacitated by a terrible headache. Her migraine pills don’t help, so she goes to the hospital, where she’s told by a doctor to keep taking her tablets and come back in a few days for a PET scan. However, just a few hours after returning home, a series of strokes almost kills her—and when she finally wakes up in a hospital bed, 19 days have passed.

Viets is writing from her own experience here; the doctor who misdiagnosed her, like the one in the book, told her she was too young and fit to have a stroke. In Brain Storm, she makes him into a murder victim. (“I enjoyed killing [him],” she told The Big Thrill. “I just wish his death could have been more painful.”) The chief suspect is another brain surgeon at the hospital—the one who saved Angela’s life. Can Angela, whose normally-sharp brain is hardly working as well as it usually does (she is convinced her mother, who died many years ago, is coming by regularly to sit by her bedside), figure out who committed the crime?

Despite the fact that she’s in such poor shape, Angela does have the advantage of being able to snoop around and eavesdrop on nurses and chat with the hospital guard. Offering moral support is her best pal Katie, the county medical examiner, who stops by regularly to bring Angela both food and gossip from the outside.

Viets describes Angela’s illness and recovery in often-harrowing detail; the mystery takes something of a backseat to the protagonist’s fight for life. However, I was won over by her strength and sass, and while Viets has described this series as “dark” (compared to her usual cozies), longtime fans will be happy that the author’s sense of humor is still in evidence. After all, sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying.

“The Improbability of Love” by Hannah Rothschild

The Improbability of LoveMy mother once told me about a writing assignment she’d done as a schoolchild in Sweden. She had to tell the story of a 10 öre coin (probably the rough equivalent of a quarter at the time) from the coin’s point of view, talking about the people it had come into contact with and the things they had spent it on.

I am sure there have been whole novels written from the point of view of inanimate objects; The Improbability of Love is not entirely the first-person (first-item?) story of a painting, but a solid chunk of it is related by a lost masterpiece by Antoine Watteau. In case you’re wondering how an 18th-century French painting sounds, imagine an even-more-loquacious Miss Piggy, who, after all, also peppers her speech with French mots and imagines herself to be the most beautiful creature in the universe. “Let’s not forget that I am the hero of this story. Moi,” states the painting.

When the painting itself isn’t “talking,” we learn about all the people in its orbit, from high-end art dealers to monstrously rich collectors to Annie, the young woman who discovers the work in a junk shop and buys it on a whim. It turns out that the Watteau is being sought by one of London’s top dealers who will stop at nothing to get it; meanwhile, Annie, who is recovering from a broken heart, has no idea that the painting is potentially worth millions.

As is the case with most books told from multiple points of view, I found some of the characters and storylines to be much more interesting than others; the subplot about a Russian oligarch and the flamboyant “consultant” he hires to introduce him to London society was not nearly as compelling as the one about the super-powerful art dealer and his even-more-ruthless daughter trying to recover the painting and hide their dirty family secrets. As for the painting, well, like the coin in my mother’s story, it travels from hand to hand. It’s stolen, given away, nearly destroyed. It relates its history in detail, presenting its insights into human behavior along the way: “My little theory is that the heart of all human anxiety is the fear of loneliness. It starts with their expulsion from the womb and ends with a hole in the ground.” And: “I have noticed that the moment people become rich and achieve their earthly desires they enter a painful, spiritual vacuum.”

This book was recommended to me by a friend who read it during a visit to London earlier this summer, and I can imagine falling in love with the novel while traipsing around the city, visiting the parks and museums and galleries that are described within. Reading it during a typically chilly August in California did not give me the same frisson; I found it a bit slow-moving at times, though the final third really picks up steam as the stakes get higher and higher for all the parties involved. Perhaps the best thing about The Improbability of Love is that it made me really interested in learning more about Watteau and seeing some of his non-fictional paintings.