Book Review: The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson
If you know anything about me (and you might not considering this is only my 5th post), you know that I love historical fiction. The Summer Before the War is Simonson’s second novel. I read her first novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, a few years ago and really enjoyed it, so I was excited to read her second novel. The Summer Before the War takes place in the quaint town of Rye in East Sussex in the summer of 1914, the summer before World War I. I have read a lot of WWII books, but not that many WWI books. Honestly most of what I know about England leading up to WWI comes from the first two seasons of Downton Abbey (Matthew and Mary forever).
The grammar school in Rye needs a new Latin teacher, and Agatha Kent persuades the school governors to hire Beatrice Nash, a young woman who is quite the progressive choice for this small town. Agatha takes Beatrice under her wing and introduces Beatrice to her two nephews, Daniel and Hugh, who are in Rye for the summer. Daniel is a poet, while Hugh is wrapping up medical school. Beatrice is an aspiring writer, grieving the loss of her father, and is determined not to marry; she is more concerned with living by her own rules, which fly in the face of the Edwardian culture. Hugh has feelings for his mentor’s daughter, Lucy, but has not told anyone, while Daniel is more concerned with starting an artistic journal with his friend Craigmore. But as the summer passes, the town residents begin to worry about the war on the continent, and even take in Belgian refugees after Germany invades Belgium.
Over the course of the book, Beatrice, Daniel, and Hugh are forced to grow up and reconcile their dreams with the realities of war. When the war becomes inevitable, Hugh enlists as a surgeon, and eventually, Daniel, after Craigmore’s death in a flying accident, enlists as well. When Agatha finds out, she suffers a minor breakdown because her two nephews, who are more like her own sons, are off to fight a war and may not come back. As Beatrice finds a community in Rye and connects with her students, she develops a stronger friendship with Hugh.
One thing that bothers me about the book is that the blurb implies that Beatrice is a loner and Hugh is immediately smitten with her. However, for a large part of the book, Hugh is interested in Lucy, his mentor’s daughter. She rebuffs Hugh’s initial proposal, telling him unless he enlists, she will not accept him. When Hugh does enlist after seeing the aftermath of the German invasion of Belgium, Lucy accepts his proposal, but does not want to announce it until after an upcoming society event with the royal family. Lucy is an interesting character because she does not get much screen time, but is actually a large obstacle in the overall storyline. In the meantime, Hugh and Beatrice continue to spend more time together, and there are hints of mutual attraction, despite Hugh and Lucy's secret relationship. But soon enough, Hugh and Daniel are off to France, and Beatrice and Agatha continue life in Rye.
I do not want to give too much of the story away, so let’s stay spoiler-free and say it was wonderful. The characters were so well-developed and flawed. The Summer Before the War is one of my favorite books I have read in the last few years. I give it 5 stars!
Let me know what you thought about The Summer Before the War or if you have any similar recommendations.