The Summer Before the War

The Summer Before the War

4.4 24
by Helen Simonson
     
 

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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • “A novel to cure your Downton Abbey withdrawal . . . a delightful story about nontraditional romantic relationships, class snobbery and the everybody-knows-everybody complications of living in a small community.”—The Washington Post

The bestselling author of Major

Overview

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • “A novel to cure your Downton Abbey withdrawal . . . a delightful story about nontraditional romantic relationships, class snobbery and the everybody-knows-everybody complications of living in a small community.”—The Washington Post

The bestselling author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand returns with a breathtaking novel of love on the eve of World War I that reaches far beyond the small English town in which it is set.
 
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 saber 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.
 
Praise for The Summer Before the War
 
“What begins as a study of a small-town society becomes a compelling account of war and its aftermath.”Woman’s Day
 
“This witty character study of how a small English town reacts to the 1914 arrival of its first female teacher offers gentle humor wrapped in a hauntingly detailed story.”Good Housekeeping
 
“Perfect for readers in a post–Downton Abbey slump . . . The gently teasing banter between two kindred spirits edging slowly into love is as delicately crafted as a bone-china teacup. . . . More than a high-toned romantic reverie for Anglophiles—though it serves the latter purpose, too.”The Seattle Times
 
“[Helen Simonson’s] characters are so vivid, it’s as if a PBS series has come to life. There’s scandal, star-crossed love and fear, but at its heart, The Summer Before the War is about loyalty, love and family.”AARP: The Magazine

“This luminous story of a family, a town, and a world in their final moments of innocence is as lingering and lovely as a long summer sunset.”—Annie Barrows, author of The Truth According to Us and co-author of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
 
“Simonson is like a Jane Austen for our day and age—she is that good—and The Summer Before the War is nothing short of a treasure.”—Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
01/11/2016
Simonson’s dense follow-up to the bestselling Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand focuses on gender, class, and social mores in the town of Rye in Sussex, England, at the dawn of World War I. Following the death of her father, who raised her to be intelligent and worldly, writer Beatrice Nash looks forward to tutoring three boys in Latin before she begins her position at school in the fall. Her advocate is the shrewd Agatha Kent, a discreet progressive who’s married to John, a senior official in the military. The childless couple love their grown nephews, Hugh Grange, who is destined to be a doctor, and Daniel Bookham, a handsome poet who hopes to move to Paris and start his own journal with a friend. As a woman, Beatrice doesn’t have much clout, nearly losing her job to nepotism and being dismissed by her favorite author, her relatives, and her dad’s publishing house. Simonson does a great job crafting the novel’s world. It’s a large book, and the plot takes its time to get going, but the story becomes engaging after Germany invades Belgium and Rye takes in refugees. Simonson’s writing is restrained but effective, especially when making quiet revelations. A heartbreaking but satisfying ending seems fitting for a story about the social constructs that unfairly limit people and their potential. Agent: Julie Barer, Barer Literary. (Mar.)
Library Journal
02/01/2016
Schoolteacher Beatrice Nash is eager to start a new job teaching Latin in the small English seaside town of Rye in the summer of 1914. She soon has a front-row seat as local squabbles regarding such matters as whether a woman should be teaching Latin at all give way to the more pressing concerns of World War I. A group of refugees from Belgium throw the orderly lives of Rye's residents into tumult, and the town is soon asked to make even larger sacrifices as its sons depart for the front. VERDICT Simonson's episodic descriptions of life in Rye as the war looms are a good bet for those looking for a relatively gentle World War I-era historical with a touch of romance. The book falters a bit when it switches away from Rye to cover life in the trenches, and the climax there feels a bit melodramatic, but Simonson's good-hearted, likable characters make up for these weaknesses and will remind readers of those from her best-selling debut, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. [See Prepub Alert, 9/21/15.]—Mara Bandy, Champaign P.L., IL
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2015-12-23
A bright confection of a book morphs into a story of dignity and backbone. Simonson follows Major Pettigrew's Last Stand (2010), her charming debut, with another comedy of manners nestled in a British village. This time she deepens the gravitas and fattens the story, which begins on the cusp of World War I. Pettigrew fans will cheer to find romance mentioned on the second page and class snobbery on the fourth. The heroine, Beatrice Nash, quickly follows, aboard a train bound for coastal Rye and a job teaching Latin in the village grammar school. This itself—a woman teacher in 1914—is a breach in tradition that foments small-town intrigue amid petticoats and decorated millinery. A pair of suffragettes mildly scandalizes the villagers, but Beatrice is more bedeviled by the politics of her financial dependency. An orphan at 23, she is self-aware but still green. Her patron, Agatha Kent, is bracketed by intriguing nephews Hugh Grange and Daniel Bookham, soon to be officers, and there is a smart local gypsy youth who stirs real feeling even as he lies to join the troops. Writing cleanly, Simonson has an observant eye and a comic touch, particularly in the person of a vainglorious American author, "swaying a little as the bulk of his torso sought equilibrium above two short legs and a pair of dainty feet." She complicates Rye with the arrival of Belgian refugees and sends the reader, alongside key menfolk, into the lethal Flemish trenches. An epilogue touches down in summer 1920. The novel starts slowly—it takes until Page 282 for Beatrice to reach the classroom—and a few bromides clutter the denouement, but this book is beautifully plotted and morally astute. Even the callow American has his part to play. Aficionados of Downton Abbey and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society will sigh with pleasure.
From the Publisher
“A novel to cure your Downton Abbey withdrawal . . . a delightful story about nontraditional romantic relationships, class snobbery and the everybody-knows-everybody complications of living in a small community.”The Washington Post
 
“What begins as a study of a small-town society becomes a compelling account of war and its aftermath.”Woman’s Day
 
“This witty character study of how a small English town reacts to the 1914 arrival of its first female teacher offers gentle humor wrapped in a hauntingly detailed story.”Good Housekeeping
 
“Perfect for readers in a post–Downton Abbey slump . . . The gently teasing banter between two kindred spirits edging slowly into love is as delicately crafted as a bone-china teacup. . . . More than a high-toned romantic reverie for Anglophiles—though it serves the latter purpose, too.”The Seattle Times
 
“[Helen Simonson’s] characters are so vivid, it’s as if a PBS series has come to life. There’s scandal, star-crossed love and fear, but at its heart, The Summer Before the War is about loyalty, love and family.”AARP: The Magazine

“At once haunting and effervescent, The Summer Before the War demonstrates the sure hand of a master. Helen Simonson’s characters enchant us, her English countryside beguiles us, and her historical intelligence keeps us at the edge of our seats. This luminous story of a family, a town, and a world in their final moments of innocence is as lingering and lovely as a long summer sunset.”—Annie Barrows, author of The Truth According to Us and co-author of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
 
“Helen Simonson has outdone herself in this radiant follow-up to Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. The provincial town of Rye, East Sussex, in the days just before and after the Great War is so vividly drawn it fairly vibrates. The depth and sensitivity with which she weighs the steep costs and delicate bonds of wartime—and not just for the young men in the trenches, but for every changed life and heart—reveal the full mastery of her storytelling. Simonson is like a Jane Austen for our day and age—she is that good—and The Summer Before the War is nothing short of a treasure.”—Paula McLain, author of The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun

“A bright confection of a book morphs into a story of dignity and backbone. . . . This book is beautifully plotted and morally astute.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
 
“Simonson’s second novel paints a sensitive, witty, luminous portrait of England at the outbreak of World War I.”Shelf Awareness

“This novel is just the ticket for fans of Simonson’s debut, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, and for any reader who enjoys leisurely fiction steeped in the British past.”—Booklist

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780812993103
Publisher:
Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
03/22/2016
Pages:
496
Sales rank:
1,344
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

 

Meet the Author

Helen Simonson was born in England and spent her teenage years in a small village in East Sussex. A graduate of the London School of Economics, she has spent the last three decades in the United States and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. Simonson is married, with two grown sons, and is the author of the New York Times bestselling debut novel Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. This is her second novel.

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The Summer Before the War 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 25 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I think that this book captured the feeling of the world on the cusp of four years' death and destruction. My grandfather, who was an ardent early motorcycle rider, joined the cavalry. The unit became an artillery. We have pictures but no stories, except one. When my uncle, his son, was drafted during the Korean War, my strong grandfather broke down and sobbed. At first WWI seemed an adventure--then--please read this story to really understand how it affected the next 100+years of our lives.
Anonymous 11 months ago
A wonderful story and beautifully written. The story is about many characters living in a small English village prior to World War I. It is about the lives of these people and the provincial way of thinking about women and the lower class. It is a more realistic interpretation of how people lived and thought about society, women rights and the reality of war.
Deb-Krenzer More than 1 year ago
I LOVED this book. I'm not sure how many pages it was, but I know it was a long one because I spent long hours with these characters and enjoyed every minute of it. I got to know them before the war, during the war and after the war. I felt I really knew them. And, it was a great story! The ending while very, very sad (tissues needed) gave most people what they deserved and several air fist pumps were made by me. It is truly a beautiful story with every emotion you can imagine. I was sad when I finished. I spent two whole days with these characters, they were family to me! I want to thank Random House for approving my request for such an entertaining and enjoyable book and to Net Galley for providing me with a free e-galley in exchange for an honest review. If you do nothing else, at least give this book a chance, you'll be glad you did.
Gail-Cooke More than 1 year ago
Aficionados of Downton Abbey will find great delight and derive much pleasure from Helen Simonson’s second novel following her very popular Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Once again we’re taken back in time to the summer of 1914 and a quiet village - Rye, England where we’re entertained by the manners, mores and constraints of small town British life. Thanks to Agatha Kent, a woman with a progressive bent, the town is in for a surprise. Agatha is awaiting the arrival of the school’s new Latin teacher, Beatrice Nash, a genteel young woman of 23 who sought employment following the death of her father. A woman teacher in 1914? How scandalous! The mere thought let alone the reality is enough to set tongues wagging. Agatha is also enjoying the company of her two young nephews who have come to spend the summer - Daniel Bookham, the poet, dreams of publishing a literary journal in Paris, and Hugh Grange who looks forward to graduating from medical school and marrying his surgeon’s daughter thus ensuring himself of a fine practice. However, when Hugh is dispatched to the rail station to pick up Beatrice his well laid plans are changed as is the village of Rye when refugees arrive following the German invasion of Belgium. Once again Simonson has given us characters that we quickly care for, hope for and would pray for as the shadow of war becomes a reality. British born actress Fiona Hardingham delivers an accomplished narration bringing the various characters to vivid life. An estimable listen!
Anonymous 9 hours ago
I enjoyed this book, both the writing style and the story. Easy and enjoyable.
Anonymous 21 days ago
Loved the characters in this historical drama. The author flawlessly weaves the pre-World War One social divisions into a complex tale. The novel includes gossips, snobs, refugees, poets, teachers, soldiers, gypsies, war, greed, lies, love, a spinster, nephews, social gatherings, landladies, outcasts, and more. Just a wonderful read. Excellent. Highly recommended! This book deserves an A+++++
Meemo_B 9 months ago
ARC provided by Netgalley for an unbiased review. I loved Helen Simonson's first book, "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand", so was very happy to dive into "The Summer Before the War". This time she takes us back 100 years, to an era when life moved more slowly and and there were serious class, gender and racial divides. Simonson explores those divides through interesting and diverse characters, some of whom are completely charming, while others are completely maddening. But all are interesting, and all contribute to an overall story that shows us what kind of ravages and social changes war can bring. Simonson does a wonderful job of taking us back to that time and to that place, with lovely descriptions of the small town of Rye, the surrounding countryside, and the people who live there. She also takes us into France and the horrors of the frontlines of WWI. I enjoyed the characters and was sad to leave them behind when I'd finished the book. I look forward to going where Helen Simonson will take me next.
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Xkoqueen 11 months ago
It was the cover of The Summer Before the War that caught my eye, and it was Simonson’s descriptive writing that kept me reading. Most, but not all, of the story takes place in the summer before the start of WWI. The plot proceeds at a leisurely pace just as one might expect the lives of the upper-crust society in a small town would during the summer. While the pace is slow and tranquil, the pithy repartee of the main characters is probably the most accurate depiction of conversation between men and women written by a modern day writer. Simonson’s scene set up reminded me of Hardy, while her dialogue reminded me of Wilde. The tale has an old-world feel to it. I appreciated Simonson’s exploration of several social issues: women’s rights (or lack thereof), homosexuality, divorce, pregnancy out of wedlock, and the strict social class structure of society in early 20th century England. The era seemed to be filled with judgment, and the smallest of slights or presumption would make someone a social outcast. The entanglement of town politics and social elite is as thick as overgrown vines on a castle turret. The restrictions on women working, deciding not to marry and even managing their own assets was frustrating to read, but alas, accurately portrayed. Rye, in The Summer Before the War, is filled with an interesting group of villagers, all of whom will be adored by fans of Downton Abby and similar period pieces. There are grand dames, German Barons, an American author (perhaps modeled after Henry James), as well as gypsies and Belgian refugees. The heroine of the tale, Miss Beatrice Nash, is one of the most interesting characters. The recent loss of her father forces her to either marry or find employment. Marriage would give her, or should I say her husband, access to her trust, but it would clip her wings. She is used to a high level of autonomy since she spent a great deal of her youth acting as her father’s travel companion and assistant. I was confounded as to why a father who obviously acknowledged his daughter’s intelligence and raised her unconventionally would then clip her wings by placing a stipulation on her inheritance. The turn –of-the-century angst is so much more enjoyable than that of modern times (I’m thinking of Being Earnest while writing this), but the eventual HEA is no less satisfactory than a modern-day romance. While the pace of the story doesn’t match the frenetic lifestyle of the 21st century, The Summer Before the War will appeal to readers who enjoy period pieces as well history buffs and lovers of the classics.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A wonderfully written novel. If you enjoy reading the classics you will enjoy this.
brf1948 More than 1 year ago
This was an excellent story, tightly told with empathetic characters that feel like friends and the texture of the community is familiar, as well. I was especially fond of Agatha - I have an aunt very like her - and Beatrice and Hugh are very likable. Helen Simonson is an author I will look for in the future. I would love to see something that carried on the lives of the gypsies. Those that played a part in this novel were very compelling.
Piney10 More than 1 year ago
I would rate this a 4.5. I enjoyed reading Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by this author, Helen Simonson, several years ago and was looking forward to her new book. It did not disappoint. I thought this was a beautifully written book. Incredible prose and very well defined characters. I did not want it to end. It is a story generally set in a small seaside town in southern England before and during World War I. So many themes run through this book but in my view so artfully weaved to make a beautifully heartrending story and yet comical in parts.
Connie57103 More than 1 year ago
This book is sure to become an enduring classic. It pulls at your heartstrings, makes you laugh in places and want to cry in others. Set in Rye. Sussex in the summer of 1914, when Germany invades Belgium, and so starts WWI. Life as they have known it will never be the same for anyone. It starts when a young, 23 year old spinster arrives by train to take on a teaching position at the local school. Or so she thought. Men of the community wanted to get a man to teach Latin. When the day comes for both to interview for a group of the town's "well thought of", something silly happens to guarantee that Ms. Beatrice Nash gets hired for the job. Not long after, a group of Belgium's refugees come to stay. The town folk don't take kindly to keeping families together, and strains of animosity set in. One learns, from reading the pages, that there are varying levels of social status. Some are even made to feel that their station in life will never change, especially if you are a young school child who is the best Latin student the town may have. Others don't take too kindly to having been told what is expected of them. Ms. Agatha Kent, who has raised two very different nephews, may just be one of them. She is older than most, but she is very funny, opinionated, and knows just when to push buttons and when not to. The start of the war, as in many occasions, sees young men all full of spirit and zeal, all ready to sign up for grand adventure. They will find out, or their poor families will, just how mistaken they really are. Life can never retrieve its innocence after that. Until then, the summer before the war is full of teas, lunches, meetings, determining, and mingling of all society types, blended with gossiping and grumbling from all. Ms. Helen Simonson has written a very worthy story that will endure for a very long time to come; as so her characters. Love them or hate them, you will be glad that you had the opportunity to read about them. I believe there is a touch of all of us in each single character. You will remember them long after the story has ended. They will become a part of your memory that you will embrace like an old friend. Thank you to Random House Publishing Group and NetGalley for giving me a free ARC copy of this book to read and give my honest review.
LilacDreams More than 1 year ago
Hugh Grange and his cousin Daniel Bookham grew up together, spending summers at their aunt and uncle’s Rye, Sussex, home. They live in an upper class world. Beatrice Nash comes to Rye as a Latin teacher. Her father recently died and, to her chagrin, her trust in controlled by his sister, a harsh woman, and trustees. War suddenly comes. The townspeople open their homes to Belgian refugees. The aristocratic Wheatons establish a hospital in their spacious home, but expect to receive officers, not common enlisted men. Ancient, drafty estates are much more suited to them, used to deprivation as they are. Everyone expects to war to be short-lived. Some, like Daniel, are annoyed with the war interfering with their plans. If the men don’t join up, they are considered cowards. Hugh, a surgeon, was interested in his mentor’s daughter Lucy, but begins to have doubts. Now she seems more enthralled with becoming a widow. Helen Simonson paints a vivid picture of country life in 1914 Britain. The harshness of life for lower classes and Gypsies, the unfair treatment of women, and the horror of war as it tears apart men and families leave a deep impression. I received a free review copy through Netgalley.
Anonymous 10 months ago
I am just so sorry to be the heavy here, but I got to page 150 or so and just could not get interested in this slow moving, boring book. Oh my, it drones on but nothing happens. However, I have to give accolades to this classy author. Praise for her depth and lack of superficial prattle that is represented on most best sellers of today. My gist: There is no language nor low class smut. Thank you for that, Ms. Susan!
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