*I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*
Title: The Summer Before the War
Author: Helen Simonson
Publication Date: March 1, 2016
Synopsis from Goodreads:
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 sabre 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.
The Summer Before the War takes place in a time that I don’t often read–mid-1910s just before World War 1. It’s at the cusp of a time that had an incredible and profound impact on society. Societal norms are forgone in the face of tragedy and strict behaviour expectations begin to change as the war upends the life that these characters have know.
What stood out most to me in this book was the strong female lead of Beatrice Nash. She subverts expectations on every occasion, shunning marriage in favour of her career, fighting to gain respect and recognition in a male-dominated world through her work and her writing. Beatrice is a symbol of the working woman and represents a changing culture. In her small and limited, but still profound way, she is fighting against an oppressive society, drawing attention to injustices and discrepancies between men and women in her world. She risks her reputation on a daily basis, especially in her new town where company is limited but class and status is strictly enforced.
The war changes things. Characters are brought face to face with the end of their lives as they know them. They experience great personal and community loss. Characters use their positions to manipulate other people in their circles, whether it’s recruiting soldiers, enforcing gender norms, establishing and maintaining rank over others, etc. The war creates a turbulent setting for this story of changing classes, and transforming societal roles.
I enjoyed Simonson’s story more than I anticipated. I was pleasantly enamoured by Beatrice as many of the characters in the town are. It was the perfect book to read on a quiet Saturday morning in bed. I curled up under the blankets, listening to the rain against the window with a big mug of coffee and got sucked into this world. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.