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The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

summer before the warMajor Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Simonson’s debut novel, was a New York Times bestseller and a beautifully written favorite. The Summer Before the War, her second novel, is another delight, and, because it is longer than her first book, it could be said to be even more of a treat to read. 

The setting is the summer of 1914 in England, specifically the coastal town of Rye in East Sussex.  Novels of this time period and general location are plentiful, but Simonson’s telling of a familiar story is special.  The book starts with the surface beauty of the countryside and with introductions to the principal characters, but it develops beyond, into an exploration of character, society, human nature, and the nature of war. 

Beatrice Nash, a young and independent woman, is determined not to marry.  Her father has died recently, leaving her money in a trust she can only access upon marriage.  She arrives in Rye to teach Latin at the local grammar school.  Agatha Kent, a leader in the local society, is her sponsor and advocate.  Agatha’s family, including two charming and eligible nephews, are her supporters, as are others in the community.  Class rank and snobbery, however, determine the actions of many characters in the novel - the mayor, some of the old country gentry families, and even some of the local farming and working families who know their place in this society and know that they rank above the gypsies who come each summer to work in the harvest. 

The horrors of World War I are detailed in the second half of the book. What war may do to the lives of many of the characters and several possible love stories keep the reader wondering how the novel will end.  Simonson tells multiple stories in an observant and comic and deeply felt manner.

If you are missing Downton Abbey, reading this book may help.   

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