Book Review |”The Summer Before the War”


I’m a big fan of historical novels so this book grabbed me on the first look. The inside flap identifies the period and location as East Sussex, 1914. The story takes place in the “small, idyllic coastal town of Rye.” The main characters in the book are uppermiddle class and it is interesting to see their interactions with the servant classes.

Aunt Agatha is a prominent woman in the village and is pushing to hire a young lady to replace the Latin Master. Beatrice Nash, mourning the death of her father, is offered the position. The story around how she beats out the male contender is hilarious. I’m sure you will enjoy it.

Hugh Grange is taking a break from his medical studies to visit his Aunt Agatha. Her husband works in the Foreign Office and is concerned about the outcome of the Germans and their saber rattling over the Balkans. You quickly surmise that Hugh will fall in love with the new Latin teacher. But will they survive the war?

I was surprised to read that Beatrice, a young unmarried woman, was not allowed to handle her own inheritance from her father, even though she had managed the family finances most of her years growing up. A trustee was appointed to watch over the money and she couldn’t even buy a dress or pair of shoes without their approval. Pretty eye-opening!

The story carries you through the beginning of the war with Germany and is reminiscent of the tragedies we still see today. Balkan people seek refuge in England, and a few are located in Rye. Simonson writes of the adversities of a continent at war and its effect on refugees.

The New York Times says “The looming war of the title is World War I, although that is belied by a dramatic departure from the genre in the concluding chapters, which take place on the gruesome front. However, most of the book is gentle. To use a Lucia byword, here there is no “tarsome” suspense. It is clear from the beginning who the favored characters are, and we can be assured they will end up satisfactorily. The book is prettily written, with charming descriptions and bits of historical detail.”

I have to disagree with the New York Times as I was very afraid that Hugh would not make it out of the war. He was on the frontlines as a doctor, administering to the worst of the wounded. The story is well-written and does have suspense with some of the main characters not returning from the war.

Simonson tells a very realistic tale of war, its hardships and the affects of the deaths of the young soldiers on the township. It made me laugh and it made me cry. I learned a lot
about Europe during the First World War in a “haunting and effervescent” read. Annie Barrows writes “Simonson’s characters enchant us, her English countryside beguiles us, and her historical intelligence keeps us at the edge of our seats.” I agree and highly recommend this book.

Born in England, Helen Simonson spent much of her youth in a small village in East Sussex. This is her second book. An earlier Simonson book, “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, is also available at Jefferson Carnegie Library in both print and audio CD formats.


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