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Book Review: The Summer Before the War

March 23, 2016

The Summer Before the War
by Helen Simonson
Random House
(e-galley from NetGalley)

In telling the story of Beatrice Nash’s arrival in a small East Sussex village, and the close-knit group of people she meets as she settles in, Simonson does a good job of capturing the mood of The Summer Before the War: the cozy ordinariness of being invited into the workings of a sleepy village, getting to know a core group of the people living there. Tea and sandwiches and Latin translations, and the small dramas and machinations between school board officials or wives arranging good works and village fetes. Beatrice finds an ally in Aunt Agatha, whose guidance helps her navigate the village’s factions and social machinations. Beatrice finds friends nearer her own age in the young men, Hugh and Daniel and Craigmore. Tight focus on a small cast of characters, on domestic relationships and village dramas creates a mood that is cozy and inviting, without being cloying.

I enjoyed Simonson’s earlier novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, for a lot of the same reasons I enjoyed reading The Summer Before the War. The inviting coziness of small village life and characters, and the minutiae of their ordinary days. Lawns, and dinners and cream teas, and village festivals were the kind of sweet and atmospheric reading and worldview I craved after having a busy, stressful few day. Simonson creates a world and a mood of the summer village days that makes an enjoyable escape of a read.

…At least, in the first several chapters. In the latter sections of the book, the story moves into the trenches, with the same attention to character and atmospheric detail. The transition is jarring for the characters, uprooted, scared and grieving. And, for the reader who has followed them from their village gardens, it’s jarring as well.

That, most of all, is what I think makes this book work so well. The mood of the book follows what, I imagine, must have been the emotional journey in the first years of the First World War, grounded in characters lives that felt easy to imagine.


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