Summary and book reviews of The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

The Summer Before the War

by Helen Simonson

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2016, 496 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2017, 512 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Megan Shaffer

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About this Book

Book Summary

The bestselling author of Major Pettigrew's Last Stand returns with a breathtaking novel of love and war that reaches far beyond the small English town 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.

Excerpt
The Summer Before the War

"It was in the first place, after the strangest fashion, a sense of the extraordinary way in which the most benign conditions of light and air, of sky and sea, the most beautiful English summer conceivable, mixed themselves with all the violence of action and passion. . . . Never were desperate doings so blandly lighted up as by the two unforgettable months that I was to spend so much of in looking over from the old rampart of a little high-perched Sussex town at the bright blue streak of the Channel."

HENRY JAMES, "Within the Rim"

The town of Rye rose from the flat marshes like an island, its tumbled pyramid of red-tiled roofs glowing in the slanting evening light. The high Sussex bluffs were a massive, unbroken line of shadow from east to west, the fields breathed out the heat of the day, and the sea was a sheet of hammered pewter. Standing at the tall French windows, Hugh Grange held his breath in a vain attempt to suspend the moment in time as ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. An important subject in The Summer Before the War is women's lives: their role and limits, and how women work within and against Edwardian strictures. Do you think we can take any modern lessons from these women's lives?
  2. Beatrice and Celeste both idolize their fathers. However, are they both betrayed? Do all the characters place too much trust in father figures? Do you think this a useful metaphor for England as it goes to war?
  3. Why do we love the Edwardian era so much? Is it the gentility and supposed innocence of the age? Does this attraction remain for you after reading The Summer Before the War?
  4. The author presents two strong women in the characters of Beatrice Nash and Agatha Kent. How are they similar and different? Why...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The Summer Before the War will dazzle book clubs and historical fiction lovers alike. The town of Rye and its coastal surroundings are sure to pique curiosity and entertain those with an interest in history. Simonson's latest work is a treasure and serves as a social commentary of the times leaving much room for discussion on issues of race, gender bias, sexuality, and politics.   (Reviewed by Megan Shaffer).

Full Review Members Only (631 words).

Media Reviews

Woman's Day

What begins as a study of a small-town society becomes a compelling account of war and its aftermath

AARP

The author of Major Pettigrew's Last Stand may have another best-seller in this tale of life in the English village of Rye just before the Great War. Her characters are so vivid, it's as if a PBS series has come to life. There's scandal, star-crossed love and fear, but at its heart, The Summer Before the War is about loyalty, love and family.

Publishers Weekly

Simonson's dense follow-up to the bestselling Major Pettigrew's Last Stand focuses on gender, class, and social mores in the town of Rye in Sussex, England, at the dawn of World War I

Booklist

The shift may be a bit jarring, but this novel is just the ticket for fans of Simonson's debut, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand (2010), and for any reader who enjoys leisurely fiction steeped in the British past.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Aficionados of Downton Abbey and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society will sigh with pleasure.

Good Housekeeping

This witty character study of how a small English town reacts to the 1914 arrival of its first female teacher offers gentle humor wrapped in a hauntingly detailed story.

Author Blurb Annie Barrows, author of The Truth According to Us and co-author of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
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.

Author Blurb Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun
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.

Reader Reviews

BeckyH

The Summer before the War
What begins as a lovely and genteel story of discrimination against a “professional” woman in an English village just before World War I, quickly becomes a fascinating tale of honor, class, love, discrimination and village life with all its charm and...   Read More

Marianne Drunm

Not "Major Pettigrew"!
Helen Simonson writes beautifully about subjects I am interested in. Her first novel, "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand," was an understated tour de force. "The Summer Before the War" is not, in my opinion. Although the characters are...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The Town of Rye

The charming town of Rye rests in the county of East Sussex near England's south coast. Rye's recorded history can be traced back to before the Norman Conquest of 1066. For many centuries it was an important port town set in a naturally formed bay. But this changed in the 13th century when a combination of major storms led to its main river changing course. This, compounded with ill-advised land reclamation, led to the bay silting up. For some years the bay was dredged to provide a shipping channel but with the coming of larger ships and competing ports, Rye's shipping business declined, the bay was allowed to silt up for good. The town now sits about two miles inland on an estuary that provides a haven for bird-life and a channel to the ...

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