The Summer Before the War
By: Helen Simonson
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: 3/22/2016
My Rating: 3 Stars
Helen Simonson's beloved, New York Times bestselling debut, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, instantly established her reputation as an uncommonly gifted storyteller, with humor, wit, and a sharp eye for character. Now she returns with an equally compelling work of fiction, one that reaches far beyond the small English village in which it is set. 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.
Review to follow.
“At once haunting and effervescent, The Summer Before the War demonstrates the sure hand of a master. Helen Simonson’s characters enchant us, her English countryside beguiles us, and her historical intelligence keeps us at the edge of our seats. 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 Usand co-author of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society “Helen Simonson has outdone herself in this radiant follow-up to Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. The provincial town of Rye, East Sussex, in the days just before and after the Great War is so vividly drawn it fairly vibrates. The depth and sensitivity with which she weighs the steep costs and delicate bonds of wartime—and not just for the young men in the trenches, but for every changed life and heart—reveal the full mastery of her storytelling. 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 “A bright confection of a book morphs into a story of dignity and backbone. . . . This book is beautifully plotted and morally astute.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review) “This novel is just the ticket for fans of Simonson’s debut, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, and for any reader who enjoys leisurely fiction steeped in the British past.”—Booklist
About the Author
I was born and raised in England. When I was a teenager, my family achieved the English dream - to move to a house in the country. East Sussex, with its sleepy villages, medieval smuggling towns, and unique pebble-bank shores is my vision of 'home.' My family lived near Rye, a 14th Century port on a cobbled hill, from which the sea receded long ago. It is marooned in the Romney Marsh landscape once home to smugglers, and is a proud member of the ancient Cinque Ports. Close by are the seaside towns of
Hastings and Eastbourne and to the west of them, the Sussex bluffs swell up into the Downs, a ridge of grassy chalk hills topped by the hundred mile trail known as the South Downs Way. To the East lie the ports of Folkestone and Dover, with its own white cliffs, and in between stretches all the rich farmland of the Sussex Weald. It is literary country: Henry James and then E. F. Benson at Lamb House, Rye; Radclyffe Hall in Rye; Kipling at Batemans, Burwash; Virginia Woolf at Monk's House, near Lewes. The list goes on- and this heritage was always a great inspiration to me.
As a young woman, I could not wait to go to college in London, or to move three thousand miles away from home to America. Yet I have always carried with me a longing for England that will not fade. I think this dichotomy - between the desire for home and the urge to leave - is of central interest to my life and my writing.
I have lived in America for three decades now. I am a long-time resident of a shabby old wooden house in Brooklyn, New York, though I also spent some years in the Washington DC area. I began my career in advertising and did not start writing fiction until I was a young mother, at home with two small children, and desperate for some intellectual escape from the diapers and the baby gym classes. “Beginner Fiction” at New York’s 92nd Street Y seemed as good an excuse for a night off as anything! A writing career takes a long time – witness my older son is out of college and my younger will soon graduate – but as a woman who did not publish until the age of forty five, I hope I am living proof that it is never too late to follow your passion, or find a new vocation. Read More