Monday, March 28, 2016

The Summer Before the War - by Helen Simonson: Book Review

After I finished watching Downton Abbey I was in a bit of withdrawal. What is one to do without the posh life of the Downton Abbey inhabitants? The Summer Before the War has all the right elements to make this a lovely book. It reminded me of the Edwardian Era, with its preoccupation for propriety and decorum, with the great attention to insignificant details, but (apparent) clueless minds in the face of great problems. See, for example, Mr. Kent's attempt to ease everyone by declaring: It is so good to be home and to worry about something real, such as a lovely young woman’s injured ankle and the fact that Cook is not happy to have had no notice about dinner. I swear it gives one faith that England will always stand. And of course, to avoid looking at the elephant in the room, they did not talk of the crisis at dinner. Instead they spoke of the weather, the progress of the kitchen garden, and how Beatrice enjoyed the town. John Kent wanted to know all the details of her arrival and settling in, and no member of the school governors, or Mrs. Turber, was spared in his wife and nephews’ retelling of events. Approaching this as a reader of the 21st century, knowing full well what World War I meant, it seems so silly and at times makes one cringe to see the good English ladies more  interested in pins, flags, and bunting for the cause of the war, when men were dying on the Continent.

The novel begins with the arrival of Miss Beatrice Nash in Rye, Sussex, to be a Latin teacher. A self-proclaimed spinster, Miss Nash is quickly involved in the war fever that has enveloped all of England, which was ready to defend "poor, small Belgium". Striving to make her position stable amid the very opinionated, gossip thirsty ladies of Rye, Miss Nash tries to become the writer she's always dreamt to be, and on top of this she finds herself falling in love, quite unexpectedly, with Hugh Grange, the nephew of Agatha Kent, the woman who secured her teaching position. Agatha is a force of a woman, but slowly she is overwhelmed by what the war means and does to people, and in the end she seems defeated in the face of something no good education, fete, or townswomen's committee can stop. As one character mentioned: Most of all I remember that what begins with drums and fife, flags and bunting, becomes too swiftly a long and gray winter of the spirit. The novel also deals with the role of the artist, whether painter, poet or writer, facing the war, as well as with the perception the British have on other cultures living among them, in this case the Romani and the Belgians.

The Summer Before the War captures in a true Victorian and Edwardian manner the hypocrisy of the English, more interested to maintain the cast and faultless-looking appearances, but able to neglect the responsibility for the well-being of the very people they are to defend and shelter. A lot happens in this novel. It begins in the summer, but the action carries well into the next year, until about late March, early April. The characters are well formed, the language is that of an Edwardian novel (which was so comforting and soothing), the action has a nice rhythm to it, not too dragged, not too fast-paced, the jokes are intelligently made, a blend of teasing and well pointed sarcasm. It makes you want to reach the end, but also, you don't want it to end. As cliche as that may sound, it's that kind of novel. There is the feeling of predictability in one or two matters, but there's more to the novel so that your attention is still kept awake until the very end.

Mrs. Helen Simonson wrote this novel so well, I expect it to be a favorite of mine for some time.

***
List of Characters (may include details from the book):
Beatrice Nash - Latin teacher
Daniel Bookham - Hugh's cousin, and Agatha and John Kent's nephew
Hugh Grange - doctor, Daniel's cousin, and Agatha and Mr. Kent's nephew
Mr. Smith - the Kent's chauffeur + his wife, Mrs. Smith
Cook - the Kent's cook
Lady Emily & Colonel Wheaton
Harry Wheaton - their son
Eleanor Wheaton - their daughter, married to a German
Mrs. Turber - Miss Nash's landlady
Abigail - Mrs. Turber's maid, Snout's sister
Snout - a Romani, pupil of Miss. Nash's. enrolls in the army.
Maria Stokes - Snout and Abigail's great-grandmother, a Romani, a kind of healer using herbs.
Mr. Tillingham - American author
Dr. Lawton - village doctor
Mr. Fothergill - mayor + Mrs. Betting Fothergill, his wife
Miss Celeste Fontaine - Belgian refugee, with child (German father), marries Daniel
Lady Marbely - Beatrice's aunt, her father's sister
Craigmore North - Daniel's good friend, son of Lord and Lady North
Lord North (Brigardier) + Lady North  Craigmore's parents. Lord North blames Daniel of Craigmore's death.
Mr. Algernon Frith + Mrs. Amberleigh de Witte - writers, not received in society b/c of their marriage
Sir Alex Ramsey - Hugh's mentor, a surgeon
Lucy Ramsey - Sir Alex's daughter, in love with Hugh
Mr. Poot - Mrs. Fothergill's nephew, clerk at Mr. Fothergill's office

I received an e-book copy of this novel via Net Galley. All thoughts and opinions expressed here are my own.

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