“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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