The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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March 22, 2016

The Summer before the War

I noted that Helen Simonson's novel Major Pettigrew's Last Stand was one of my favorite books of the year, back in 2010, and I started looking forward to this one the minute I heard about it. That can be an invitation to great disappointment, can't it? :)  I'm so happy to say that, in spite of some wondering along the way, that didn't happen.  I was charmed, and surprised, and didn't want the book to end {though it ended as it should have}.

The Summer before the War is set, literally, in the summer of 1914, mostly in Rye, on England's southern coast.  As you might guess, this was an enormous part of the appeal for me, with its connections to Henry James {and E,F, Benson, who I'm going to re-read because it's so hard to leave}.  The book has a kind of ensemble cast, including residents of Rye, relatives and newcomers, and later, Belgian refugees displaced as the Germans advance, In one of her many battles with Mrs. Fothergill, the Mayoress {'a very pushing sort of person}, Agatha Kent {'She was of a certain age where the bloom of youth must give way to strength of character'} has persuaded the school governors to hire (gasp) a woman to teach Latin in the local grammar school.  Beatrice Nash, who arrives early to tutor three mostly unpromising village boys, is still grieving the loss of her unconventional, intellectual father and escaping the unkindness of the relatives he has left in control of her finances.  

Agatha and her husband John, who does mysterious work in the Foreign Service, are much loved by their two nephews:  Hugh is a serious young doctor, looking forward to working under a famous Harley Street surgeon and marrying the surgeon's daughter, and Daniel is a poet, charming, flighty and irresponsible, planning to escape his uncle's help in launching a career to start a literary magazine in Paris with his special friend, Craigmore.  And then, oh joy, there's Mr. Tillingham, the great master, who lives in a house with an enclosed garden and a library that Beatrice longs to enter.  As she copes with her landlady, and Agatha steers her through the social waters {'I have put all my eggs in your basket, Miss Nash. Do I make myself clear?'), there's a lot of charm and humor, which is good in itself.

I did find myself beginning to wonder if this book would have the same kind of powerful message that Major Pettigrew did. But I think the power of this one (with its compact setting and time} is that the the mood and the story shift, for the characters and for us, as the war begins so quickly to change their lives.  It would be telling too much to say more, but what happens seem inescapable, and true, in ways that were both comforting and hard to bear.

The Summer before the War is published today.  Thank you to NetGalley and Random House for letting me having an early look. It was a great treat!


JoAnn said...

So glad this one doesn't disappoint! I loved Major Pettigrew, too, and look forward to reading her latest.

Claire (The Captive Reader) said...

Interested to read you thoughts on this one. I read it a few weeks ago and was entirely underwhelmed. The elements all appealed but the whole was less than the sum of its parts for me.

Cosy Books said...

This is on my holds list and does sound appealing. I've read Claire's comment and her experience is exactly what I'm hoping doesn't happen. Often a book will arrive for me and it just reads as a bit light when compared to books written in the midst of these eras. I've been spoiled! Thanks for sharing your thoughts...fingers crossed.

Sunday Taylor said...

Oh, I can't wait to read this one. I am so glad she has a new book out. Thanks so much for your review!

JaneGS said...

I am so looking forward to this book. I also really liked Major Pettigrew, and found Simonson so easy to read.

Thomas Hogglestock said...

I've been desperate to find something really good to listen to on my commute and was so happy to come across this one. I like Major Pettigrew so I thought it would work out well, and it has. I can't wait to drive home tonight.

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