Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand was one of the early books my book club chose to read. I was completely taken in by the story of a gruff old man learning how to let go of his prejudices in a town that had always enforced them, of learning to open his heart to a most unexpected love.
That book was published way back in 2010. I wasn’t waiting for a new book from Simonson, but when it showed up on my radar, I was interested.
Then I started reading reviews of it on Goodreads and people didn’t seem to love it. I backed off.
I came across a copy at the library a few weeks ago and thought “why not?”
The Summer Before the War is set in a village in England, in the summer of 1914. Beatrice Nash has taken the post of Latin teacher at the school, the first woman to ever hold the post. When she arrives she meets Agatha Kent, who has been instrumental in Miss Nash’s success in getting the job. Mrs Kent warns her that she has a lot riding on her doing well in the job. Mrs Kent has two nephews, Daniel and Hugh. Daniel fancies himself a poet, intent on running away to Paris and setting up a literary magazine with his titled best friend; Hugh is training to be a surgeon, the more serious of the cousins, he becomes a good friend to Beatrice.
The book becomes about the havoc that the war wreaks on a certain way of life in England at the time. Belgian refugees come to the village, straining resources and forcing people to confront the realities of a war they’d prefer not to think about too much. This book is less about whatever might happen between Beatrice and Hugh and more about how a whole village does or does not pull together in a time of crisis.
I’ll be honest, it took me a while to get into this one. Simonson lays a lot of groundwork of the time, the characters, their backgrounds, the rules that govern society – all on a backdrop of this idyllic, golden English summer. I found it hard to figure out how much time had passed – war seemed to very suddenly affect the village in a myriad of ways and it felt like more time should have passed. But you know, I wasn’t around in 1914, so maybe that’s exactly how it played out. Simonson probably knows better than me.
The strength of this book lies in the foundation. Before you know it, you are deeply invested in the lives of the characters that you’ve totally fallen in love with. Snout, a 15-year-old with a questionable heritage, a passion for Latin, who decides war will be the making of him; Celeste, the beautiful Belgian refugee who needs the support of the village when the full extent of her experiences become known; Eleanor, whose German husband is in Germany and who people suspect of possibly being a spy. And of course, Beatrice, Agatha, Daniel and Hugh.
And lest you think it’s completely character driven, know that Simonson also did an amazing job, like she did with Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, of examining the prejudices of the day. Women’s suffrage, the plight of the Fallen Woman, antipathy towards the area’s Romani population, and class snobbery are all embroidered in the fabric of the story.
By the time I finished reading this one, tears were streaming down my face. Totally unexpected.
I meant to buy this one many times over and now that I’ve returned the library’s copy, I regret that I didn’t give in to that temptation. This is a book I would have liked to loan to others.