This was the second book I picked up on my vacation. I was deliberating between a book set in India (that I decided to check out of the library) and a history of New Zealand (also library) when I saw Helen Simonson’s name. Simonson wrote Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which I absolutely loved, enough so that her name makes a book an automatic buy.
The Summer Before the War is set in the summer before the first world war. It revolves around Beatrice Nash, the first female Latin teacher ever hired by the town of Rye, near Sussex, England. Recently arrived back in England after the death of her father (they had been living as ex-pats), she’s determined to make it on her own as an independent, successful woman. She meets Hugh Grange, a surgeon-in-training whose Aunt Agatha was instrumental in Beatrice’s hiring, and in the idyllic countryside summer, begins a slow and wonderful romance.
I really enjoyed this book! I didn’t love it as much as I did MPLS, but I found the tone to be the same kind of inquisitive sweetness – not cloying, just pleasant without glossing over the awful parts of life. Most of the book is a romance set against a depiction of a small English village. There’s the small town politics; the beautiful summer days and strolls in the gardens; the festivals and fairs; and the small dramas of village life. There’s quirky characters and good food and an idyllic day or two to imagine yourself in.
There’s also the burgeoning feminist movement and a truthful examination of the difficulties of being a single woman in the early 20th century. There’s the Romani people, who come every summer and have for hundreds of years, yet face incredible prejudice. There’s two men who, at great cost, hide how they truly feel about each other and two women who quietly hide that their relationship is more than society would ever expect.
All in all, it’s a more complete picture than I would normally suspect. Somerset manages to create a sweet and peaceful village that has room for the daily sufferings and injustices often ignored in idyllic settings. The inclusion of such people adds to the magic, mostly, I think, because they feel real without adding a “dark, seedy underbelly” tone. (There is no dark seedy underbelly to Rye.) Instead, it’s a gentle acknowledgement of all that was happening in the village and makes me feel like I was truly seeing a slice of life, rather than the cherry-picked good parts. It made the escapism of the novel more complete to me and much more emotionally compelling.
Of course, after the summer, the war does break out (and the book does an excellent job of letting the reader feels it’s looming throughout.) Somerset actually follows the novel through the beginnings of war-time and this leads us to my main issue with the book. While the pacing in terms of action/not-action was fine, I wish Somerset had let the book play out over a longer period of time. Everything happens in a 6-month span and it just seems short for the final emotional growth and realizations of the characters. The last few chapters are jam-packed with important events and I wanted a bit more temporal space between them. I liked the plot line, I liked the characters’ responses, but for some reason, I just feel she needed to stretch out her timeline by at least another 6 months, if not a year.
I also feel like some of her main characters were a little too good; they needed just a tad bit more flaws for me to really invest in them. It was such a small imbalance that I didn’t even notice it until I was done with the book. But it there, just a little. Hugh, in particular, could have done with an unkind thought or two.
If you’re a fan of idyllic British country villages, or if you like small, sweet stories in the face of adversity, or if you’re interesting in a more inclusive historical fiction, this is definitely a book you should try. If you’re looking for a perfectly idyllic world with no real troubles at all, if you’re a big fan of flawed main characters, or if you don’t like big thematic shifts in books than this, unfortunately, is probably not the book for you.