The Summer Before the War is a historical fiction novel that chronicles the lives of several families in the town of Rye, England prior to World War I. Rye is a real place that still exists today "near the coast in East Sussex. In the centre, cobbled lanes like Mermaid Street are lined with medieval, half-timbered houses. The redbrick Lamb House was once owned by writer Henry James. Nearby, the tower of the Norman St. Mary’s Church overlooks the town. The 14th-century Ypres Tower, which formed part of Rye’s defences, is now Rye Castle Museum, with paintings and displays on local history (Rye, East Sussex).
Simonson drew upon her locale from her own childhood and her depiction of poetry at the heart of the novel from great authors such as Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brook. She even has a character that resembles Henry James (Irish author, but made his home in Rye as noted above).
The novel begins in the summer of 1914 when England knew peace and war was only something spoken of in hushed whispers of "surely not" and "what if." The people of the town subscribed to old-fashioned decorum with proper tea and proper places in society. Agatha Kent, a matriarchal figure for the quaint English village, however, has just ruffled the feathers of the school board by suggesting a woman replace the previous Latin master at the local school. Beatrice Nash is anything but dainty, and is certainly progressive, and her arrival is really the catalyst to the constant change thrust upon the village. While the looming war is certainly not her fault, her character's arrival reads like foreshadowing for the unimaginable devastation of war that will change their village forever.
Simonson writes with a deft hand for both detail and characterization. The progressive women, the conservative mainstays, the poets, the surgeons, the soldiers, the dreamers. She creates a world that is entirely believable and fully cultivated with a plot the lends itself to turning pages, but at quite the leisurely pace.
And this is where I struggled some with the novel - it reads like a Sunday drive...a very slow Sunday drive. The plot builds into a climatic development, but it happens so late in the novel I found myself putting the book down a lot to see what else I could do. It's not a bad book, it's just not a riveting book. I really liked her characters and it certainly carried with it a "Downtownesque" feeling, but the story didn't captivate, until it captivated. In the end I was heartbroken, but the development to take me there earns it only ☕☕☕. It feels very rushed in the end, and I understand the urgency of war once the war has begun, but it read like two separate novels for me: a very long development of plot, characterization, and setting, and then a fast-paced war novel. I understand the shift, I just didn't enjoy it.
Overall, this is a good book, but not something that's going to keep you up at night. Helen Simonson does have another novel entitled Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, which as I read the reviews has the same writing style. Maybe something to check out?
I would like to share something by Wilfred Owen though, a poet from who she drew inspiration for the poets' corps in her Army ranks:
Dulce et Decorum Est