Haunting Book: The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson

summer-before-the-war-coverMy last review of a haunting book for 2016 is of The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson. Ms. Simonson is the author of one of my favorite books of the last decade, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, published in 2010. Her second novel, The Summer Before the War, is good, but it doesn’t rise to the same level of excellence as Major Pettigrew, and most reviewers seem to agree with me.

Still, The Summer Before the War haunts me in its description of World War I on the home front and in the trenches. It starts, as one would expect, in the summer of 1914, before war breaks out. In the beginning, it is the portrait of a small English village and the characters that inhabit it.

The character at the heart of the novel is Beatrice Nash, who seeks the position of Latin instructor at the local school. Beatrice is penniless and must succeed as a teacher, no matter how much she would prefer to be a writer. Beatrice would be the first female Latin instructor, and the town’s movers and shakers might not be ready for such a development. The school has other female teachers, but apparently Latin is a masculine subject, at least in 1914. And besides, Beatrice is too pretty to teach, some in the town believe. But Agatha Kent, one of the grande dames of the village, has risked her reputation to get Beatrice the appointment.

Despite its title, The Summer Before the War continues long after the summer of 1914. In fact, it continues throughout the war years. The young men go off to battle, and the women and old men of the village are left behind. The book depicts the tragedy of war—on soldiers, on those who remain at home, and on the displaced (as the town takes in Belgian refugees). These themes are universal, but the novel is quintessentially English and very much grounded in Edwardian times.

SPOILER ALERT — DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT SPOILERS

I think the reason this book didn’t appeal to me quite as much as Major Pettigrew is that the characters were not as unique nor as charming as those in Ms. Simonson’s first book. In particular, the cultural diversity of Major Pettigrew made that novel stand out for me—the British Army major’s reluctant romance with his Indian neighbor and the quirky intrafamily disputes in both the English and the Indian families hooked me.

By contrast, the characters in The Summer Before the War seemed more generic. Any novel about World War I would contain the same archetypes—the grande dames of the village, the young men who reluctantly abandon their dreams to fight, the arguments between generations, the social strata of Edwardian England (like in Downton Abbey), and the betrayals in the village and on the battlefields. Even the plight of the gypsies in England has been covered in earlier books. For me, only the Belgian refugee characters took the book into unusual aspects of the war’s impact at home.

I did love the small-town intrigue between Agatha Kent and her nemesis Bettina Fothergill. Agatha has an ally in Lady Emily Wheaton, and the scheming among these three older women is delightful, as they strive to advance their chosen candidate for Latin instructor, either Beatrice or a doltish young man named Mr. Poot. The diplomacy that Agatha’s husband must exercise in his career at the Foreign Office is child’s play compared to the village politics plotted by these women.

I also liked the family conflicts between Agatha and her husband and their two nephews, Hugh Grange and Daniel Bookham, both of whom are pursuing their personal goals in directions that their uncle in the Foreign Service might not like. Hugh is studying to be a doctor, Daniel wants to start a poetry journal. Neither man anticipates the impact the war will have on his life.

A romance ensues between Beatrice and Hugh, despite many interruptions. I won’t tell you how it turns out, but you can predict that war interferes. And because it is a war novel, sympathetic characters die, but I won’t tell you which ones. The war brings out the best and the worse in the characters, as war does in most novels.

The Summer Before the War is a slow-paced novel, resembling the life in the small town it depicts. Many reviewers have commented that the novel should have had a stringent professional edit to take out some of its 500 pages. It was definitely longer than Major Pettigrew, which felt to me like a much more focused book. Still, for a grand overview of the impact of World War I on a small town in England, you can do far worse than to read The Summer Before the War. I can see The Summer Before the War being made into a BBC Masterpiece series, but I would rather see Major Pettigrew.

What novel have you read that you wish would become a Masterpiece series?

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