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NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE WASHINGTON POST AND NPR East Sussex, 1914. It is the end of England's brief Edwardian summer, and everyone agrees that the weather has never been so beautiful. Hugh Grange, down from his medical studies, is visiting his Aunt Agatha, who lives with her husband in the small, idyllic coastal town of Rye. Agatha's husband works in the Foreign Office, and she is certain he will ensure that the recent saber rattling over the Balkans won't come to anything. And Agatha has more immediate concerns; she has just risked her carefully built reputation by pushing for the appointment of a woman to replace the Latin master. When Beatrice Nash arrives with one trunk and several large crates of books, it is clear she is significantly more freethinking--and attractive--than anyone believes a Latin teacher should be. For her part, mourning the death of her beloved father, who has left her penniless, Beatrice simply wants to be left alone to pursue her teaching and writing. But just as Beatrice comes alive to the beauty of the Sussex landscape and the colorful characters who populate Rye, the perfect summer is about to end. For despite Agatha's reassurances, the unimaginable is coming. Soon the limits of progress, and the old ways, will be tested as this small Sussex town and its inhabitants go to war. Praise for The Summer Before the War "What begins as a study of a small-town society becomes a compelling account of war and its aftermath."--Woman's Day "This witty character study of how a small English town reacts to the 1914 arrival of its first female teacher offers gentle humor wrapped in a hauntingly detailed story."--Good Housekeeping "Perfect for readers in a post-Downton Abbey slump . . . The gently teasing banter between two kindred spirits edging slowly into love is as delicately crafted as a bone-china teacup. . . . More than a high-toned romantic reverie for Anglophiles--though it serves the latter purpose, too."--The Seattle Times " Helen Simonson's] characters are so vivid, it's as if a PBS series has come to life. There's scandal, star-crossed love and fear, but at its heart, The Summer Before the War is about loyalty, love and family."--AARP: The Magazine "This luminous story of a family, a town, and a world in their final moments of innocence is as lingering and lovely as a long summer sunset."--Annie Barrows, author of The Truth According to Us and co-author of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society "Simonson is like a Jane Austen for our day and age--she is that good--and The Summer Before the War is nothing short of a treasure."--Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-01-11
- Reviewer: Staff
Simonson’s dense follow-up to the bestselling Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand focuses on gender, class, and social mores in the town of Rye in Sussex, England, at the dawn of World War I. Following the death of her father, who raised her to be intelligent and worldly, writer Beatrice Nash looks forward to tutoring three boys in Latin before she begins her position at school in the fall. Her advocate is the shrewd Agatha Kent, a discreet progressive who’s married to John, a senior official in the military. The childless couple love their grown nephews, Hugh Grange, who is destined to be a doctor, and Daniel Bookham, a handsome poet who hopes to move to Paris and start his own journal with a friend. As a woman, Beatrice doesn’t have much clout, nearly losing her job to nepotism and being dismissed by her favorite author, her relatives, and her dad’s publishing house. Simonson does a great job crafting the novel’s world. It’s a large book, and the plot takes its time to get going, but the story becomes engaging after Germany invades Belgium and Rye takes in refugees. Simonson’s writing is restrained but effective, especially when making quiet revelations. A heartbreaking but satisfying ending seems fitting for a story about the social constructs that unfairly limit people and their potential. Agent: Julie Barer, Barer Literary. (Mar.)
The whole world in a small town
As the summer of 1914 draws to a close, 23-year-old Beatrice Nash is headed to East Sussex by train. The small town of Rye doesn’t know it yet, but her arrival is about to shake up the status quo—not to mention the lives of town matron Agatha Kent and her two nephews.
In her long-awaited second novel, following the 2011 word-of-mouth hit Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson returns readers to her hometown of Rye, East Sussex—although, as she admits during a phone call to her adopted hometown of Brooklyn, she’s able to view it through “somewhat rose-colored glasses. I don’t have to put up with the rain or the warm beer, so I’m left to plumb all these deep emotional wells without any of the hindrances of daily, petty annoyances!”
Simonson has spent most of her adult life in the United States, where she moved with her American husband to pursue a career in advertising, and eventually raised two sons. While she loves the States, and visits England often, Simonson admits to “a deep longing for home. I’m one of those people who believes that children need to go out in the world—the farther the better—but those of us who go off to explore are left with a hole . . . it’s this kind of push-pull situation,” she says in a voice that still sounds quite English to this American interviewer.
"Simonson's writing has a distinctly English flavor . . . moving, but not sentimental."
Simonson’s writing also has a distinctly English flavor, but her books are unlikely to be described as “cozy.” Though she uses a small-town setting, Simonson is interested in the ways people interact. Her novels are moving but not sentimental—sly comedies of manners that have more in common with Jane Austen than Jan Karon.
“I believe the whole world can be explained in a small town,” says Simonson with a laugh—and The Summer Before the War opens up a whole world to readers. From socialites to refugees, this rich, beautifully written social comedy encompasses a range of nationalities and classes and is told from three perspectives. It’s the first time Simonson has written from a female point of view.
“There’s a long history of women wanting to go out into the world dressed as a man, and that’s essentially what I got to do writing Major Pettigrew. So it was funny to come back and write as a woman—I almost felt more exposed.”
Writing historical fiction was also a new step for Simonson. Using her hometown—and her fascination with the Edwardian writers Henry James and Edith Wharton, who spent time there—as a touchstone, Simonson decided to “prove myself as a real writer by taking people on a time-travel journey.”
That journey begins as Beatrice Nash arrives in Rye. Both prettier and younger than expected, the new teacher is almost immediately required to defend her position—which she desperately needs after the death of her father—against Agatha Kent’s scheming society nemesis, Lady Emily. Siding with Agatha and her husband, John, in support of the new teacher are the couple’s two nephews, cousins Daniel and Hugh. Carefree poet Daniel is Simonson’s homage to “all the young men who went off to war writing poetry,” while practical Hugh is completing his surgical training. The two are like sons to the Kents, who never had children of their own, and their relationships with Agatha are among the most compelling in the novel.
“I was really interested in how difficult it is to be an aunt who would love to be a mother,” says Simonson. She adds that she needed distance between Agatha and the two boys for other reasons as well. “As a mother of two sons, I’m just unable to write about the mother of two sons. I think my writing would come across as impossibly cheesy because I love my sons to death and would be totally incapable of writing anything nuanced about them!”
There may not be a better word to describe the characters in The Summer Before the War than “nuanced.” Even background players are fully rounded and alive, thanks to Simonson’s textured writing. By the time World War I breaks out, the reader knows this community, which makes the “very, very small” approach that Simonson takes to portraying the war feel right.
“When we go to war, I focus very closely on Hugh, working in the hospital. There are no epic battle scenes. By keeping things small and hopefully somewhat mundane, I try to navigate the geography of the battlefield without making any great claims to expertise in discussing war or the pain that it brings people.”
"Like the best historical fiction, The Summer Before the War not only takes readers back to the past, but also gives them a new perspective on the present."
Like the best historical fiction, The Summer Before the War not only takes readers back to the past, but also gives them a new perspective on the present. Take Hugh’s observation that “spirited debate was the first casualty of any war,” or the discussion between Agatha and Beatrice about whether the best way to advance women’s rights is to work within the system, or defy it. Perhaps the most topical of these is the Belgian refugee crisis, which is largely forgotten in the U.K. today.
“I had no idea until I read a Henry James essay on the subject that there were Belgian refugees in my hometown,” says Simonson. “England took in 250,000 Belgian refugees and housed them and fed them and found them work for four years, all on a charitable basis. Perhaps it’s a lesson we could learn from today.”
Though there are plenty of lessons to ponder in this novel, it is also very, very funny. The crackling repartee between Agatha and Lady Emily recalls Isobel Crawley and Lady Violet on “Downton Abbey.” Hugh and Daniel, close as brothers, “spend endless hours trying to prove the other one wrong,” says Simonson, to a reader’s delight.
Full of trenchant observations on human nature and featuring a lovable cast of characters, The Summer Before the War is a second novel that satisfies.
Author photo © Nina Subin