Jane Austen and other 19th century novelists of life and love in quaint villages of long-ago England, you should not miss The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson. Although it begins in 1914, on the eve of World War I, it quickly put me in mind of those earlier authors, with its exquisite village setting, its jumble of aristocrats and commoners, and its lavish period detail about dress, food, furniture, customs, and manners.
The novel begins slowly, as a charming tale of coastal village life at "the end of England's brief Edwardian summer." The weather has rarely been so glorious. Young, pretty, free-thinking -- and penniless -- Beatrice arrives to take her controversial place as the local grammar school's new Latin master, a position that until now has always been filled by a man. Her conditional hire situates Beatrice within a large cast of characters and allows Simonson to tackle the subject of the subjugation of women in the early twentieth century, which she succeeds at doing very well without being heavy-handed.
The rumblings of war draw closer however, Belgian refugees soon arrive in the village, and before long all are swept up in the years of bloody and tumultuous fighting that will eventually claim over 17 million lives, wound 20 million more, and end forever many of the old European ways of living. Despite the chaos into which the period descends, Simonson succeeds in bringing history vividly to life and her characters and story to satisfying conclusions.
Simonson's mastery of her material is astonishing, especially considering this is only her second novel, the first being the highly acclaimed and equally delightful Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. She's a natural born storyteller. Her characters rarely hit a false note, historical detail is fluidly rendered, and the writing is well-crafted, witty, and intelligent. There's no treacle here either; certain scenes are hard to take. People suffer atrocities, reputations are hurt, class cruelty abounds, and a few characters do not survive to the end. In constructing this intricate tale of love, class, and war, Simonson never settles for confection but hews to the genuine and authentic.
~ Ann, Adult Services