Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

The Summer Before the War evokes England in 1914 in the small town of Rye, a time when family, innocence, and small town politics ruled the day.  With the threat of war looming and then overtaking England, this time would be looked on as the last period of innocence.

Beatrice Nash is a woman adrift.  Her father has recently died and left her inheritance in a trust that is ruled by her overbearing Aunt who will not allow the money to be used for anything, including supporting herself.  Beatrice gets a job as a Latin teacher in Rye.  She comes to Rye as the first woman Latin teacher the town has known, and not everyone wants her to be there.  Beatrice needs the job to get by and also dreams of becoming a writer like her father before her.

Hugh Grange is a young medical student staying with his Aunt Agatha and Uncle John in Rye.  Their home has always been a home away from home for him and his young poet cousin, Daniel.  Aunt Agatha helps to secure a job for Beatrice Nash and Beatrice soon gets to know Agatha’s entire family and many of the town folk.  As the town opens its arms to Belgium refuges and war looms, Hugh and Daniel both find themselves pushed towards joining the war effort.  Will Beatrice Nash be able to become a writer and an independent woman of her own means?  Will Hugh marry the daughter of his instructor surgeon?  Will Hugh and Daniel go over there and return?

I loved the contrast within this novel of the idyllic life before the war and the sheer hell that war entailed.  War was the very end of the novel, but it was unforgettable.  I loved that even through the hell, there were still moments of great humanity. 

I also loved how Simonson wrote such a wonderful narrative about the town of Rye and so many of its residents.  The entire town felt real to me.  At the end of the novel, Simonson wrote that she grew up in Rye.  I felt that this novel was a love letter to the city, full of the good and the bad.  I loved all of the characters.   I felt like I could have kept reading on for a good while on the town and its inhabitants.  How would the roaring 20’s treat them?

I also really enjoyed Beatrice’s story.  It’s hard to believe that back in the day, a woman would not be able to manage her own finances and inheritance.  How she could be paid less for doing the same job as a man (I guess not much has changed) and how it was hard to just make ends meet on this meager salary.

My sister Kristi recommended this book and I’m glad she did.  I loved the characters, setting, and storyline.  It was a good slow read that I savored.  I only wish that it had a follow up volume!

My favorite quotes:

“I want to teach and study and write, as my father did, and to have my efforts treated no less seriously because I am a woman.” – Beatrice

“No woman can resist having her name rhymed with a flower in iambic pentameter.” – Daniel

“The smaller the town, the more decades one was likely to be viewed as a newcomer; though in a town like Rye, newcomer was considered a step up from being a summer visitor and totally disregarded by all.”  Having lived in small towns most of my life, this is definitely true.

“’My parents told me to marry for money,’ said her husband. ‘But I chose the love of a strong woman.’
‘And look what trouble I turned out to be, she said.”  - John to Agatha

“Overhead, a single lark spilled its praise into the blue dome of the sky.” – Last line.

Overall, The Summer Before the War is a great historical fiction novel set directly before WWI with great characters, setting, and storyline.  I high recommend it – especially for lovers of Downton Abbey.

What is your favorite book that puts you in a Downton Abbey frame of mind?  Do you have any favorite books that really tell the story of an entire town or village so well you feel that you live there?

Book Source:  The Kewaunee Public Library


  1. You had me at:
    “No woman can resist having her name rhymed with a flower in iambic pentameter.”

    I checked this book of the library in early summer but couldn't make time to read it, and now I am pining to read it. The quotes are especially delicious, but I really like the overall premise, and the characters sound like people I could live with for awhile.

  2. They definitely are! It was a slower read for me, but well worth it. The last part of the book really read fast for me. Sometimes I have to check books out of the library a few times in order to actually have time to read them - that's what just happened to Lilac Girls for me!